Early voting, other reforms could make Ky. elections worse

McGrath vs Barr: Watch the Kentucky congressional candidates make their pitch to voters

Retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, are making their cases to Kentucky voters in the Sixth Congressional District as Election Day nears.
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Retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, are making their cases to Kentucky voters in the Sixth Congressional District as Election Day nears.

Would-be election reformers say citizens should be registered to vote automatically or allowed to register on the same day they vote, if the rules are going to require registration at all. And, they ask: Why not let voters swing by a voting station days or weeks early?

Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins asked me to investigate what the research says about these proposals. Do automatic voter registration or early voting make a significant difference in who participates?

I came away doubtful the commonwealth should adopt either.

The case against early voting is more obvious. That proposal builds from a faulty understanding of what motivates voters. If each citizen lived in a bubble, and decided individually whether voting were worth the hassle, then sure, flexibility would encourage more participation.

Instead, voting is a fundamentally social act. My spouse might persuade me to tag along when she registers, or might set the alarm 30 minutes ahead so we can vote on the way to work. The excitement might build up in my neighborhood as Election Day nears, campaign signs sprouting on lawns, and I might look forward to bumping into old friends at the polling place, where we’ll stand in line sipping coffee. A co-worker’s “I Voted” sticker might prevent me from giving in to the temptation to go straight home after a long day’s work.

Organized groups, such as political parties, also make a big difference when it comes to getting individuals to the polls. Campaigns sometimes sponsor massive get-out-the-vote efforts, with robocall phone reminders and sign-waving volunteers. Unions might provide assistance transporting citizens to their voting stations, and businesses may let employees show up late.

Early voting strips away many of the social encouragements for participating. The really engaged citizens tend to vote first, so excitement fades by the time Election Day rolls around.

If my spouse votes early, I might not join her, figuring that I’ll get to it later. And organized groups will not invest as much in persuading or turning out citizens if a lot of the voting has happened already.

No surprise, then, that the political science research on early voting finds that it fails to increase participation. If anything, participation is lower as a result. States have spent ample time and money maintaining voting stations for days, only to make citizens less likely to vote.

Automatic voter registration also appears to bring unintended consequences. Again, the so-called reform is grounded in a misunderstanding, this time of why citizens do not vote. When asked why they do not participate, non-voters usually do not complain about the hassle. Rather, most report that they do not understand government, do not think their vote will make a difference, or do not care who wins.

No surprise, then, that while automatic voter registration or AVR successfully pushes people onto the registration rolls — because it does so against their will — those involuntary registrants still tend not to vote.

Consider Oregon, the first adopter of AVR and a trophy state for reformers. Among registrants who had not already interacted with an election official, either to register or to declare a party affiliation, two-thirds stayed home in 2016. Oregon’s turnout rate among registered voters in 2016 was the worst in almost two decades.

If voter registration rolls were thin in Kentucky, AVR might be a worthwhile experiment, but they are not. I estimate that, if everyone registered in Lexington belonged on the rolls, it would amount to almost 100 percent of the eligible population.

No one would believe that figure; Census Bureau surveys place the state percentage much lower. But at a minimum, such swollen registration lists suggest the commonwealth should not toy with policies intended to pump up voter registration until after cleaning up the rolls to determine whether and where Kentucky’s registration rates actually are low.

Opponents of electoral-reform legislation usually stress the risk of fraud, or they question the value of votes cast by citizens who need to be dragged into the process. I am suggesting a different reason for skepticism: So-called reforms often bring insufficient benefit to warrant the time and money invested in them, and sometimes they backfire.

Given what motivates citizens to vote (or not vote), perhaps political figures concerned with low turnout should worry less about the rules of the game and focus on giving citizens a reason to show up on Election Day.

D. Stephen Voss is a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. Read full report at fayettecountyclerk.com.