Why Americans don’t vote (and what to do about it)
Kentucky does not make it easy to vote, as I’ve chronicled in these pages previously, at least as compared to other states. The registration deadline is four weeks before the election. On Election Day, polls are open for only twelve hours. Most voters who wish to vote early or via absentee ballot need an excuse. Almost all felons are disenfranchised for life.
No wonder voter turnout is abysmally low. Last time we elected the governor, only 31 percent of voters showed up.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Many states have enacted positive voting rights reforms that make the voting process easier and more inclusive.
As I demonstrate in my new book, Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting, everyday Americans – I call them Democracy Champions – are working to improve the democratic process all over the country. I’m not talking about big structural changes like abolishing the Electoral College, though that’s sorely overdue as well. Instead, Democracy Champions are seeing successes in making the actual voting process easier and more convenient for all voters. The result, predictably, is higher turnout with hardly any concerns of fraud.
Why, for example, must we register to vote almost a month before Election Day, when many people are not even following the campaigns yet? This year, if you don’t register by April 22, you will be cut out of the important primary election on May 21. (Register here: govoteky.com.) In this day of online registration databases, there’s simply no need for the state to have that much time to verify the lists before Election Day.
Many other states have a much more relaxed process. With automatic voter registration, states put eligible voters on the voter rolls automatically, using information the state already has through DMV records. Other states allow for same-day registration, where a voter can register and vote at the same time. These states don’t suffer from election integrity problems and they have much higher turnout.
Some states automatically mail a ballot to every registered voter, allowing voters to research the candidates and issues before returning the ballot via the mail or at a secure dropbox. In other jurisdictions, voters can vote at a Vote Center anywhere in the county instead of at a home-based precinct. Once again, turnout has predictably soared. In fact, a new report shows that the states with the highest turnout in 2018 employed automatic voter registration, same day registration, vote at home, or a combination of these practices.
The reforms came into being in places like Oregon and Colorado thanks to the efforts of everyday Americans and local organizations engaging in community advocacy. People like Steve Trout in Oregon and Scott Doyle in Colorado came up with creative ideas to improve the voting process and then saw them through to implementation.
Democracy Champions also exist here in Kentucky. I open the book with the story of West Powell. When Powell was 18 years old, he stole a car radio from an auto salvage yard. He was caught and convicted, ultimately losing his right to vote for life. Many years later the Kentucky legislature was considering a bill to allow some former felons seek an expungement of their records. Powell testified at a committee hearing, talking about how he had made a mistake but cleaned up his life. He married, had 5 kids (“I was trying to have a boy but the four girls came first, so that’s that,” he quipped), and opened a computer repair shop.
But the law didn’t let him have a voice in our democracy.
Powell’s testimony changed the mind of Republican Whitney Westerfield, who himself became a champion for the felony expungement bill. West Powell regained his right to vote and hasn’t missed an election since.
Of course, broader change is needed, but Kentucky can look to the example of places like Florida, which recently amended its state constitution to undo its harsh felon disenfranchisement law. Kentucky now stands as one of only two states – the other is Iowa – that disenfranchises most felons for life.
We can do much more to make our election system better and ultimately improve turnout. Inspiring people like West Powell and so many others I interviewed for this book show us the way.
In fact, on Tuesday night (Tuesday, April 9 at 6:30 p.m.) at Pivot Brewing I’ll be holding a book launch party and featuring a new group, The People, that stemmed from Michigan’s successful push for redistricting reform last year. Katie Fahey – who I profile in chapter 8 – unwittingly started a statewide revolution to create an independent redistricting commission in Michigan from a single Facebook post. Her new group, The People, seeks to foster improved civic discourse and nonpartisan election solutions that can help all voters.
It’s the exact kind of message and approach that can truly fix our democracy.
Joshua A. Douglas is a law 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 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.