Get out the Vote: Can We Do Better?

Why don’t more people vote? It’s a fair question, given that some elections, particularly midterm ones, don’t generate all that much passion. The 2010 election, for instance, saw just 37.8% of the electorate cast ballots. Even though such elections can be critical – the sitting President can either gain or lose power depending on which party wins control of Congress – the races don’t seem to excite voters.

At Collaborative Services, we’re all about engaging people in public decisions, whether about projects, policies, or resources. So today we turn our attention to ideas that could help improve voter turnout.

One way to bump up turnout is to make voting mandatory. In more than 30 nations, if you don’t vote, you get fined. Australia took that step in 1924 after seeing 59% of the people vote in the 1922 election. (That turnout is similar to what the U.S. averages in presidential elections by the way.) In 1925, when mandatory voting was the law of the Australian land, 91% of the electorate took part. So, yes, it worked. (However, it was not until 1967 that a referendum gave all Aborigines the right to vote.)

Advocates say a larger electorate would put a dent in the current polarization of today’s smaller voting block. Critics say government shouldn’t intrude into our lives, where it’s not needed, such as the decision to vote.

Indeed, some question whether voting is even worthwhile. After all, few races are ever decided by a single vote.  The authors of “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” made that argument here. But if everyone thought that way, the system would collapse. No one would vote.

There are other ideas to increase voting turnout  besides compulsory voting. One idea is rather simple: Move Election Day to the weekend. Why do we vote on a Tuesday? Well, the answer goes back to how we conducted our lives in the the mid 19th century. Tuesday was selected so that farmers could travel to the county seat on a Monday and return to their homes by Wednesday.  That decision dates back to 1845.

Credit: Futurity

One organization, Why Tuesday,  thinks it is high time to reconsider a new voting day, one more in tune with today’s society. In 2012, perhaps the time has come for a weekend voting day instead of a Tuesday. And consider this statistic from the nonprofit organization: Of the 172 nations, the United States ranks 138th in voter turnout, and dead last in voter turnout on average – 47.7%-  since 1945.


While many states in the U.S. have some form of early voting, 15 do not, according to Why Tuesday. Tuesday is the only day people in those states can vote.

Other people advocate that we make Election Day a national holiday. That way people wouldn’t have to worry about using their lunch hour to vote or head to the polls in the early morning or evening – when the polling stations are much more crowded. Or, if they had to wait in line for seven hours, at least it wouldn’t be on a work day.

A Huffington Post blogger suggests we make presidential elections a national holiday. That way it would be only one day off every four years. A variation on that theme was offered by Martin P. Wattenberg, a Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. He came up with the idea of merging Election Day with Veterans Day, in this 1998 article published in The Atlantic. The idea was endorsed by The Carter-Ford Commission, which was created to study America’s voting problems after the 2000 election. But Veterans’ groups were strongly against it and eventually the House of Representatives voted for a resolution expressing disapproval of combining election day with the holiday.

Credit: Veterans Today

That brings us back to mandatory voting. A twist on that idea would be instead of levying a fine, let voters have a shot at getting rich. Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in an Washington Post article: “Finally, if we can’t persuade more Americans to vote with the threat of a fine, how about the promise of untold riches? Millions lined up — sometimes waiting all night — for a shot at the Mega Millions lottery in March. How about another lottery, where your vote stub is a ticket, and where the prize is the money collected from the fines of those who didn’t vote? The odds of the mega-jackpot were about 1 in 176 million — we’d like to believe that the chances of fixing American politics are a bit better than that.”


For more insight on voter turnout, our next guest interviewee this week is Jonathon Louth, Political Scientist and Lecturer at the University of Chester in England and co-author of “Compulsory Voting and Turnout: The Australian Case.” Look for his thoughts in our next post.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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