Election Reforms to Drive Turnout

Election Reforms to Drive Turnout

Friday, November 20, 2009




Election Reforms to Drive Turnout

As part of our Shared Multi-State Agenda, the Progressive States Network is working with legislators, advocates and leading experts to promote election reforms that drive voter turnout in states across the country - just in time for the coming 2010 and 2012 election years.  Through coordinated, strategic support, PSN and our allies will be working to introduce and advance election reform policies that increase voter turnout in as many states possible, providing model legislation, policy analysis, messaging and more - all of which has been gathered and will be constantly updated on our Shared Agenda Election Reform webpageLegislators and advocates can contact us about participating and supporting Election Reform campaigns through our website or by emailing

Election reforms are a crucial tool in building increased support for the broader progressive policy agenda.  One of the largest impediments to real progressive reform is that our election system often excludes voters — non-white, less-educated, and less wealthy individuals — who are the most supportive of progressive policy changes.  Expanding electoral participation to include a larger, more diverse set of voters will increase support for the host of progressive reforms that are supported by the substantial majority of the population whose voices are not always heard at the ballot box.  Working state by state to remove barriers to voting and increase participation in the political process will be a fundamental determinant of how successful progressives will be in achieving the broader reforms we are working toward.

Summary of Election Reform Policies to Drive Turnout and Why They Matter

Voters should be given every opportunity to participate in our elections and be apart of a system that assures every voice is heard and every vote is meaningful.  As part of our Shared Multi-State Agenda, the Progressive States Network is working to promote three election reforms that further these goals in states across the country: National Popular Vote, Vote by Mail and National Voter Registration Act Compliance. Each addresses a different layer of our electoral bureaucracy - the presidential election process, the options for casting a ballot, and the process of registering voters. 

Why These Policies Matter:  The last two election cycles have seen progressives win impressive victories across the country.  However, these gains remain tenuous in many areas, and progressives must be prepared for history to repeat itself and bring a challenging election in 2010, especially at the state level.  Adding to the urgency is the fact that the results of the next election will determine who controls redistricting in each state.  Given this state of affairs, measures that can help bolster turnout will be crucial to maintain the enthusiasm voters demonstrated in 2008, which will likely be a prerequisite for continued success nationally and in the states.  Each of the three reforms in our election agenda have been embraced by voters and elected officials in several states.

  • National Popular Vote (NPV):  NPV is a state-based movement to guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia).  To achieve this result the plan uses two constitutional powers explicitly granted to the states by our Founders - the power to apportion Electoral College electors and the power to enter into interstate compacts.  Under the bill all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded, as a bloc, to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). The bill would take effect only when enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes — that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538).
  • Vote by Mail:  Vote by mail is a system by which any voter can choose to receive a mail-in ballot for an indefinite period of time.  In this way, it is an expansion of absentee voting by allowing every voter to participate without having to give an "excuse," and allowing voters to permanently vote by mail.  Importantly, under this system, voters maintain a choice to vote at a polling place on election day.
  • National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) Compliance:  Under the federal "motor voter" law, states are required to provide the opportunity to register, and assistance in doing so, at departments of motor vehicles and public assistance agencies.  Over time, states have largely fallen out of compliance with this requirement with respect to public assistance agencies.  State legislators can help reverse this trend by bringing oversight to bear on the NVRA compliance practices of public assistance agencies, and where possible passing legislation to mandate best practices for NVRA compliance.

Bill Summaries:
Vote By Mail Bill Summary
National Popular Vote Bill Summary
NVRA Compliance Bill Summary

Model Legislation:
Vote By Mail Model Legislation
National Popular Vote Model Legislation
National Voter Registration Act Compliance Model Legislation

Messaging Election Reforms to Drive Turnout

Election reforms are an essential aspect of achieving the fundamental progressive goal of an inclusive society where every person is able to participate in shaping their community into the place they want it to be.  Without broad and unhindered access to electoral participation, minorities, the poor and other groups that lack political power in proportion to their numbers will continue to be marginalized in our society.  For these reasons, progressives can speak strongly in favor of voting reforms as a important tool in achieving a just society, and as policies central to achieving the range of our shared goals including health care reform, fair tax policy, and living wages for all workers.

National Popular Vote:  NPV garners the support of greater than two-thirds of voters in the 30+ states where it has been polled.  The bill has now passed in five states (Maryland, New Jersey, Hawaii, Illinois and, most recently, Washington) with a total of 61 electoral votes, almost a quarter of the total needed for NPV to go into effect.  Voters typically support NPV at about 75%, including healthy majorities of Republican voters.  Polls in individual states show consistent support as well, with voters supporting it in a range from 68% to 81%.  The following messages help address some of the myths and misunderstandings about the consequences of NPV:

  • The Winner Should Win:  Emphasize the primary reasons why NPV has such broad support - because every vote should count equally, and the candidate with the most votes should win the election. These are the principles that we respect for our local, state and congressional elections and they should hold for the Presidential election as well.  
  • Making Every State a Battleground State Will Increase Turnout:  Average turnout in the 15 most competitive Presidential states was 6% higher than in the rest of the states for the 2008 general election, so NPV will help expand turnout.
  • NPV is a Civil Rights Issue: Civil rights has drifted out of the national dialogue as the battlegrounds have shifted away from states with high percentages of minority voters. For example, just 21% of African Americans and 18% of Latinos live in the twelve closest battleground states from 2004. NPV assures that all groups and their issues get equal attention.  This is why the NAACP and African-American and Latino legislator organizations support NPV.
  • NPV Helps Small and Rural States:  Despite myths otherwise, by leveling the playing field, NPV forces candidates to concentrate on all constituencies, states and populations, rather than disproportionately spending time in a few larger winner-take-all mega-states.  In addition, because 12 of the 13 small states are spectators, they actually constitute the most ignored groups of states.
  • NPV Avoids Disputed Close Presidential Elections:  Because a very close result is more likely among a smaller group of voters, the possibility of a Florida 2000 style electoral meltdown is much less likely under NPV.  Put another way, because the margin of victory nationwide is much larger than it is in individual states, NPV elections are less susceptible to problems than essentially 50 state races.

Vote by Mail:  Vote by Mail is now an option in five states (California, Colorado, Montana, Hawaii, and New Jersey) and has been increasingly popular with voters.  California and Colorado have seen the greatest usage with almost a third of California voters voting by mail in November 2008, and an astounding 71% of Colorado voters doing so.  Key arguments in favor include:

  • Vote by Mail Helps Increase Turnout:  For many voters going to the polling place on election day is difficult, either for work or family reasons.  Vote by Mail is the obvious, low-cost solution for giving such voters the flexibility they need to participate in our elections.  Allowing voters the option to vote by mail for every election gives them a flexible path to the ballot box, without which they might not participate. 
  • Vote by Mail Gives Voters a Choice:  In the 21st century, we have the ability to give all voters a choice in how they cast their ballots.  There are many voters who can make it to the polls, but who prefer to vote by mail either for convenience or because they like having time to fill out their ballots in the comfort of their home.  However, under current practice in some states the mail ballot option requires voters to have one of a few narrow reasons (an “excuse”) for not voting at the polls; and in all but five states, voters must reapply for a mail ballot every election. 
  • Vote by Mail Reduces Election Day Chaos and Costs:  Vote by mail also helps make sure that no one is prevented from voting on election day by long lines.  Colorado residents reaped this benefit in the last presidential election with a smooth election that contrasted sharply with the previous election without vote by mail.  In that election some Denver voters waited in lines that lasted half a day or more.

National Voter Registration Act Compliance:  NVRA compliance has been re-implemented by public assistance agencies in five states (North Carolina, Michigan, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Missouri).  The messages to expand these successes include:

  • NVRA Compliance Increases Registration:  The reward has been substantial, and in some cases dramatic, increases in voter registrations obtained.  Missouri has obtained the most impressive turn-around, with a 2600% increase in registrations collected from public assistance agencies after reforms were implemented. 
  • NVRA Compliance Assures Equal Opportunities to Register:  The National Voter Registration Act was enacted with the understanding that opportunities to register to vote must be equally available to all.  But racial and socio-economic gaps in the electorate will persist so long as public assistance agencies fail to offer voter registration to their low-income clients.  Such individuals, who are less likely to own a motor vehicle, must have a chance to register to vote at public assistance offices as others do at departments of motor vehicles. 
  • NVRA Compliance Addresses Racial and Economic Disparities in Registration:  Recent U.S. Census data confirms the racial, ethnic and class bias of the electorate: 73.5 percent of non-Hispanic whites were registered to vote in 2008, as compared to 69.7 percent of blacks, 59.4 percent of Latinos, and 55.9 percent of Asian Americans.  Only 65 percent of adult citizens in households making less than $25,000 a year were registered to vote in 2008, as compared to 85 percent of those in households making $100,000.  Effective voter registration programs at public assistance agencies are powerful tools for reducing these disparities and bringing more voices into the democratic process.

Building Election Reform Campaigns

Progressive States Network is working with a range of allied organizations so state leaders can tap resources from those groups to help them in their legislative work.  We will be working with those allies to strengthen communication between legislators and organizational allies across the states working on our priority election reforms, while providing other technical support as needed during policy campaigns.

Allied national groups are working on every aspect of our election reform agenda.  Key organizations are listed below along with critical resources for waging a campaign.

National Popular Vote:

Vote by Mail:

NVRA Compliance:

PSN Support in Your States

PSN has already begun working with legislators and advocates to provide support for them as they introduce election reforms legislation around the country.  We'd like to work with many more!

Our policy staff are also available to answer questions and supply information not on the website.  Legislators and advocates can contact us about supporting Election Reform campaigns through our website or by emailing

As bills are introduced and sessions begin, PSN will provide ongoing resources and updates on election reform legislation, as well as help coordinate strategy and information sharing with our partners among sponsors and advocates.

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Research Roundup

New reports on Tax Inequality and the Fiscal Crisis in the States

  • Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States - Updating their critical analysis of inequality in state tax systems across the country, this report by the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy (ITEP) highlights that the wealthiest Americans are paying a smaller income than middle class residents in almost every state.  In fact, the average state tax rate on the poorest 20 percent of families is 10.9 percent, which is more than double the effective rate on the very wealthy.  With this analysis in mind, the clear import is that states can help close budget gaps by having their wealthiest citizens just pay their fair share of taxes.
  • Beyond California: States in Fiscal Peril - This Pew Center on the States report scores all fifty states on factors driving fiscal crises, from high foreclosure rates and joblessness to legal obstacles and tools to achieve balanced budgets, such as super-majority requirements. 
  • Amazon’s Arguments Against Collecting Sales Taxes Do Not Withstand Scrutiny - As states begin to collect sales taxes on online retailers like Amazon, this report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents that collecting such taxes are not excessively burdensome, are not unfair to out-of-state retailers, and leaving out-of-state retailers untaxed gives Amazon and other online retailers an unfair competitive advantage over in-state retailers paying the tax.

Workers Losing Federal Unemployment Benefits in January 2010 Due to Expiration of the ARRA - The National Employment Law Project (NELP) released new numbers documenting that one million workers (or over 30,000 a day) will lose their jobless benefits in January alone if the federal extension programs are not reauthorized by the end of December. 

Tools for Greening State Economies

  • Green Equity Toolkit: Advancing Race, Gender and Economic Equity in the Green Economy - This policy toolkit from the Applied Research Center provides strategies for labor and community organizations advocating for economic opportunity for women and people of color in the green economy, including examples of successful local campaigns.
  • Greening Ohio Industry - With assistance, Ohio manufacturers could substantially reduce their costs, save energy, and reduce carbon emissions by investing in industrial efficiency, according to a report released by Policy Matters Ohio.  Along with greater efficiency measures in production and upgrades in the energy grid, the report notes that if the state made a $10.5 billion capital investment in combined heat and power technology (CHP), it could produce $2.9 billion in energy savings annually and create over 40,000 jobs

Union and District Partnerships to Expand Learning Time: Three Schools' Experiences - This report by the Center for American Progress examines the challenges and successes of implementing expanded learning time in a traditional public school environment.  It highlights the role of teachers and teachers' unions in negotiating an expanded schedule and reviews relevant literature on teacher time and collective bargaining.

Parenting with a Plan: How TANF Can Support Positive Parenting Relationships and Foster Father Involvement  - States and localities vary on how well they are, or are not, providing tools to help low-income families effectively parent while living apart.  This Center for American Progress report examines how federal TANF funding for its Access and Visitation program could be improved to help states, make joint parenting work, including greater support for services, legal service providers and supporting community-based institutions to support families.


The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Executive Director
Nora Ranney, Legislative Director
Marisol Thomer, Outreach Director
Altaf Rahamatulla, Tax & Budget Policy Specialist
Christian Smith-Socaris, Election Reform Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Health Care Policy Specialist
Julie Bero, Executive Administrator and Outreach Associate
Mike Maiorini, Online Technology Manager


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