Three evidence-based solutions to improve voter turnout

On Election Day, only 30.7 percent of registered voters turned out to help decide Kentucky's next governor and several statewide elected offices. Ouch!

Many theorists have argued that the strength and vitality of a democracy is threatened if a critical mass of citizens fail to exercise the basic responsibilities of self-governance, the most basic of which is showing up to vote on Election Day.

Recognizing the importance of electoral participation in Kentucky, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes announced on Oct. 1 that online voter registration will be available to Kentuckians starting in 2016. This is an important step and hopefully will result in more voters choosing to engage in the process. Given this year's dismal voter turnout rate, is there anything else that can be done to boost Kentucky voter turnout in the future? Political science research offers a few clues.

First, we should note that some proposals have been shown to have little consistent effect on turnout. These include early voting, vote-by-mail and voter-ID laws.

Early voting is convenient and appealing, but researchers have found that those who take advantage of it tend to be the same people who would turn out to vote on Election Day regardless. And research by the Pew Research Center has found that early voting can actually lead to slightly lower turnout.

Another popular proposal has been to implement a "vote by mail" initiative (currently in place in Oregon, Washington and Colorado).

While in theory this should increase voting by making it easier and more accessible, research has shown an effect similar to early voting: those who take advantage of it are those who tend to vote regardless of the mechanism and it does little to boost turnout among those who vote infrequently.

Also, despite the massive amount of criticism aimed at voter-ID laws on the charge that it systematically disenfranchises the votes of minorities and low-income Americans, political-science research has yet to uncover any systematic evidence that voter turnout, even among minority populations, is lower in states that have implemented such laws.

So what has a higher likelihood of working in Kentucky?

One clear option is Election-Day registration (EDR) where voters can show up and register on the spot before going into vote. Studies have shown that it boosts turnout by anywhere from three to four percent. There is very little downside and 11 states plus the District of Columbia have already implemented it.

Another option would be to extend poll closing times past 6 p.m. After all, Kentucky has one of the earliest poll closing times in the entire United States. One piece of research by three political scientists at the University of California found that states with poll closing times after 7 p.m. have about a three percent higher turnout rate than those that close before 7 p.m.

Perhaps the most effective option would be to consolidate state and federal election cycles in Kentucky, a practice currently done by 45 other states (only Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia hold state-level officer elections in odd-numbered years).

In 2003, researchers Zoltan Hajnal and Paul Lewis conducted an analysis of voter turnout across municipalities in California and found that the single largest factor that boosts turnout is to consolidate elections between the local and federal levels, driving up turnout in those elections by 25 to 35 percent.

This suggests a simple solution in Kentucky: Move gubernatorial and statewide elections to even-numbered years along with the midterm congressional or (even better) presidential election years. This would draw in those mobilized to participate in presidential or congressional elections who usually don't show up for gubernatorial elections.

It would also save taxpayer money by reducing the number of elections the state is responsible for administering. And surveys have shown widespread public support for election consolidation.

In sum: three evidence-based practices Kentucky lawmakers should consider to boost turnout are:

■ Implement Election-Day registration.

■ Extend voting to 7:30 p.m. or later.

■ Move state level elections to an even-year election cycle to coincide with the federal election calendar.