Making Voting Easier Assists Record Turnout in Presidential Primaries

Interest in the presidential election has been extremely strong throughout the primary season. As a result many states have experienced voter turnout that is significantly higher than past elections. This trend has been especially striking among young voters who have doubled and tripled their rates of participation in many states. Enabling this turnout have been a number of reforms, from early voting to election day registration to mail-in voting procedures that have encouraged wider participation.  

These kinds of reforms not only help voters but also help election administrators who must manage the increasing numbers of voters at the polls.

The challenge of administering voters will only grow in the general election, where participation is expected to be even greater than in the primaries. Yet with minor changes, states can have a positive impact on voter participation and facilitate the orderly administration of elections. There are several simple reforms that states can make to their voting and registration procedures that will help ensure that all interested citizens can participate in the coming presidential election. In this Dispatch, we highlight reform-minded voting practices in the states and give examples of minor reforms to election laws that states can use to reap some of the same benefits - increased voter participation and reduced pressure at the polls on election day.

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Early Voting To Ensure Voters Have a Chance to Get to the Polls

Early voting is used in many states to make voting more convenient and to ensure that all interested voters have a chance to get to the polls.

Texas has a highly proactive early voting program that makes in-person voting conveniently available in places frequented by voters, from stores to recreation centers. In no small part due to the outreach efforts of election officials, voters in Texas cast 1,145,276 in-person early ballots, which accounted for over one quarter of all ballots cast in the presidential primary on March 4. Despite the large percentage of voters that cast an early ballot, interest in the election was so great that individuals still had to wait in lines and deal with other problems on election day. The situation would have been much worse if Texas had not had the foresight to permit early voting. 

States can institute limited early voting by allowing voters to cast an absentee ballot at their local election office. Thirty-one states currently allow some form of in-person early voting. The simplest form this takes is in states like Louisiana, where voters are allowed to cast a ballot directly at the Registrar of Voters' office in each parish. Establishing election office, in-person absentee balloting isn't challenging to implement, because it does not require the election board to use additional resources or change procedures. Voters are merely received during normal business hours and allowed to cast an absentee ballot or vote on a machine. No new systems need to be developed or new staff trained to implement this procedure. All that is required is a change in the law and some public outreach to notify voters of their new voting option.

Legislation (Virginia SB 69) implementing in-person early absentee balloting recently passed the Senate in Virginia.

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Vote by Mail Elections Increase Turnout

Vote by mail elections increase turnout and prove highly popular with voters in states where they are employed. Colorado and California allow permanent no-excuse mail-in voting, which allows voters to choose voting by mail for all subsequent elections. This option is becoming the choice of an increasing number of voters. These states, however, continue to provide precinct-based polling. Oregon and Washington both have vote by mail elections in all or most of their respective states. These systems have been shown to increase voter turnout and receive the support of a large majority of voters who have participated in a vote by mail election.

"No Excuses" Absentee Voting: One of the simpler methods to expand mail-in voting in any state is eliminating the requirement that voters provide a reason when requesting an absentee ballot. Georgia is one of 28 states where any voter may choose to vote using a mail-in absentee ballot, and is another state that experienced record turnout in the presidential primary. While stopping short of permanent absentee voting, these states allow voters who can't or prefer not to come to the polls to apply for a mail-in ballot for the current election. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia currently put limitations on who can choose to vote by mail-in absentee ballot. Removing these limitations and allowing any registered voter to request a mail-in absentee ballot is an easy way to increase access to the ballot box. Florida provides an excellent example of a simple absentee voting law that allows access for all voters. Indiana and Tennessee both currently have no-excuse absentee legislation moving through their statehouses.

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Election Day Registration & Reducing Registration Deadlines to Increase Participation

Reducing lengthy registration deadlines can increase the number of voters participating in elections. New Hampshire is one of eight states that allow voters to register at the polls on election day. As a group, these states have a very high rate of voter turnout, and in 2004 the three states with the highest turnout all allowed election-day registration. New Hampshire saw record turnout in this presidential primary and early estimates also indicate that a record number of voters were registered on election day.

Easing restrictive registration deadlines: In 2006, nineteen states had registration deadlines of October 10 or earlier, approximately one month before the November 7 election. Because citizens' attention to an election increases dramatically in the last month before an election, early registration deadlines prevent many people who become interested in voting during this period from participating. However, Iowa, Kansas, and Vermont allow voters to register into the last week of October. Additionally, Colorado, Nebraska, and Utah allow voters to register beyond the normal deadline if they come to a local election office to do so. Many of the earliest deadlines could be changed without adding significant pressure on election officials charged with processing these registrations. Reducing the deadline for those who register in-person is a particularly easy way to make sure engaged citizens have access to the polls. Plus, the effect of this reform is magnified by the fact that people who register soon before an election are more likely to actually vote.

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Implementing National Popular Vote to Sustain High Levels of Turnout

Beyond election procedures, the most critical source of high turnout are competitive elections where voters know that their votes will matter. Unfortunately, in Presidential elections, the winner-take-all system of our Electoral College and a focus on "swing states" means that candidates neglect non-swing states and many voters don't vote. Implementing a National Popular Vote -- which would give the Presidency to the candidate who garners the most votes nationally, wherever those votes come from -- would force candidates to pay attention to the voters of every state. 

Primary Shows How Every Vote Can Count: The current Democratic presidential primary has provided a window into the positive effects a national popular vote for president would have on voter participation. Democratic delegates are allocated in proportion to the popular vote in each state, instead of winner takes all as is the case for virtually every state in the general election. This primary system, which approximates a popular vote election, combined with the closeness of the race, has yielded an election where truly every vote does matter. Candidates are reaching out to small states as well as large states, since the election cannot be won by just piling up large margins in a few big winner-take-all contests. The result has been huge increases in turnout in states that have often been marginalized from the process (for example Hawaii and Washington). Likewise, groups of voters who have not traditionally had a strong role in choosing a president, such as rural voters, are seeing their power amplified in this proportional process. 

Using Interstate Compact to Implement National Popular Vote: A national popular presidential election can be implemented by passing an interstate compact among the states with no need to amend the U.S. constitution. Maryland and New Jersey have already adopted the interstate compact, which commits the member states to giving their electors to the winner of the national popular vote. The compact will go into effect when the number of states that have joined constitute a majority of the Electoral College votes. This type of election would refocus the current battle over a handful of states into a true fifty state campaign. The energy, excitement, and high turnout found in the current Democratic primary would likely be the new status quo for presidential elections.

The national popular vote compact is advancing in many legislatures around the country, including recent action in Hawaii, Washington, and Illinois.

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The 2008 presidential primary has generated more excitement and turnout than any election in a generation. This surge in interest has been accommodated by pro-voter reforms in several states that have helped make sure that all interested citizens have an opportunity to participate. While little time remains until the November election, there are several small but significant changes that states should consider making to their voting laws that would help accommodate the increased numbers of voters this election, while reducing pressure on overcrowded poll site.

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