Kentucky voters would be correct if they lamented the burdens they face in voting, at least as compared to many other states. Amidst a surge of turnout during early voting this year in several other states, Kentucky is left out: Most Kentucky voters have to wait until Election Day and they will have only 12 hours (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) to vote. The state requires an excuse for absentee balloting and does not have early voting.
Moreover, with a requirement that voters register 30 days before Election Day, people who become interested later in a campaign season and then want to register simply cannot participate in our democracy through voting.
No wonder Kentucky ranked No. 44 in the country for its election administration, based on a nonpartisan, objective measure called the Elections Performance Index.
Yet a recent op-ed from fellow University of Kentucky professor and election commentator Stephen Voss suggests that enhancing our election system with positive, pro-voter reforms is not worth the effort.
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That view is unfortunate, to say the least.
The biggest problem with the perspective that positive electoral reforms have “insufficient” benefits is that it denigrates the fundamental right to vote, the most cherished right in our democracy. More people voting — even a few more people — is certainly worth it, as it gives additional citizens a voice and makes our democracy more representative. Is there any good reason for unnecessary barriers to the ballot box? Don’t we want more people participating? “Time” and “money” are no excuse for failing to foster an inclusive democracy.
With respect to the two specific reforms Voss discusses, automatic voter registration and early voting, again the analysis fails to recognize the benefits of enhancing the voting process.
Take automatic voter registration, a reform sweeping the country — in both red and blue states — that has added hundreds of thousands of people to the voter rolls in over a dozen states. The idea is simple: Instead of requiring someone to opt-in to the voter registration database, the state has the onus of using the information it already has — such as through DMV offices — to dynamically update the voter rolls and register voters.
Just look at Oregon: The state registered more than 225,000 new voters under the policy in 2016 and nearly 100,000 of them voted. True, the turnout rate (the number of voters divided by the number of registrants) went down slightly, from 82.8 percent in 2012 to 80.33 percent in 2016, but that’s probably because the number of registered voters went up by so much.
To be sure, we need to find ways to make it more likely that these newly registered voters will go to the polls, but Oregon’s slightly lower turnout rate in 2016 is no reason to reject AVR. Just listing Oregon’s turnout rate next to Kentucky’s 59 percent turnout in 2016 or the abysmal 31 percent in 2015 tells us that we can do a lot better.
Further, AVR helps to clean up voter rolls and saves states money in the long run. It also takes away the need to process numerous paper registrations. Voss’ research laments the likely bloated voter rolls in Lexington-Fayette County (which, to be clear, provides no evidence of actual fraud), yet automatic voter registration can help to fix that problem as well.
An even better reform is same-day registration. In 15 states and D.C., an individual can show up on Election Day and register and vote at the same time. In this day of technological innovations, states no longer need advanced time to check voter-registration databases. States with same-day registration do not suffer from any significant voter fraud. Not surprisingly, when states remove the registration barrier to the ballot box, more voters turn out: The top six states for voter turnout in 2016 were states with same-day registration, while the bottom five states had a pre-registration requirement of three to four weeks before Election Day.
The column by Voss also rejects any benefits of early voting days. He is correct that most preliminary research suggests that early voting does not directly improve turnout. But what about all of the other benefits? Early voting can reduce lines on Election Day and the accompanying burdens on poll workers, minimize the stress on our electoral apparatus, and decrease voter apathy. Even better would be to move to universal vote-by-mail — used in such politically diverse states as Colorado, Washington and most of Utah — which actually improves turnout and reduces costs in the places that use it.
The way forward to improve our democracy and create a more perfect union is to embrace positive enhancements to our election system. Yes, it’s really worth it.
Joshua A. Douglas is a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law who specializes in election law, voting rights and constitutional law. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting.” Find him at www.joshuaadouglas.com and follow him on Twitter @JoshuaADouglas.