To Get More Voters, Make Voting Easier

Sam Goodstein is a lawyer specializing in election issues.

Once again, a Los Angeles City Council election was marked by woefully low voter turnout -- this time about 13%. Once again, the trinity of lame explanations: Voters are lazy, politicians are out of touch and "voting doesn't make a difference." While there might be a kernel of truth in each of these excuses, they miss the fundamental reason for low turnout: unfriendly election laws.

The history of election law in the United States is one of painfully slow progress, of incremental advances toward universal access to the ballot.

But taking down barriers to the vote is not enough. Today, though California law no longer prevents any citizen over 18 years old from voting (with the notable exception of felons in prison or on parole), the law still makes it too difficult and complicated to vote.

What is so complicated? How hard is it to go to your precinct once every couple of years? What is so tough about requesting an absentee ballot? The point isn't that these are inherently difficult things to do -- they aren't. The point is that ballots should be made more accessible. A few simple reforms could do the trick.

First, we shouldn't have so many elections. There is no earthly -- or even legal -- reason why every general election can't take place on the same November day.

Holding City Council elections in the spring of "off years," four months after federal and state elections, virtually guarantees lower turnout -- if for no other reason than the natural law that it takes more effort to do something twice than once.

Speaking of effort, why can't I register to vote at a precinct on election day? In California, you have to register to vote 15 days before the election.

Defenders of the status quo claim this 15-day cushion is needed to prevent voter fraud. This is, at best, misguided. At worst, it is a smoke screen for an effort to suppress turnout. Six states have election-day registration -- Wisconsin, Maine, Minnesota, Idaho, Wyoming and New Hampshire. These states enjoy turnout rates that are 8% to 15% higher than the national average and have seen no upsurge in voter fraud.

The final reform is the most simple but should have the biggest effect. Each county should mail to each voter an absentee ballot application. Absentee ballots are a tremendous way to increase voter turnout because they decrease the hassle involved with voting. You just fill it out at home and mail it in.

Under this reform, if you want the absentee ballot, you mail the application back to the elections official and the ballot would be sent to your house.

If you prefer going to the polls on election day, throw the application in the garbage. If you don't want to vote at all, that's your choice.

We need this reform because too few people think to apply for an absentee ballot, and the state should do everything it can to encourage -- and increase -- turnout.

Effective election reform requires more than replacing "butterfly ballots" with electronic voting machines, as some states started to do last year. It requires encouraging people to use those new machines. In short, it isn't enough to make voting possible. We need to make it as easy as possible.

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