Almost half a year has passed, but the 2008 election still looms as an epochal event. With a record voter turnout, the American people, including members of many groups who have been excluded from the political process, changed the face of the nation’s leadership and the direction of our public policies.
In many ways, this view is not only optimistic but realistic. More than 133 million Americans cast ballots in the election last year—the largest number of voters in U.S. history and 9 million more than in 2004. Four constituencies that have historically been under-represented—African Americans, Hispanics, unmarried women and young voters (ages 18-29) —provided the margin of victory for President Obama.
But the other side of the story is that 79 million eligible Americans did not vote. Forty-four million of these non-voters were not registered, and another four million were discouraged from voting because of burdensome policies, such as voter identification requirements.
Disproportionate numbers of non-voters belong to the very groups that have historically been excluded. African American turnout increased dramatically in 2008, but, in 2004, only 60 percent of African Americans voted. Meanwhile, in 2008, among voting-age Americans, 21.5 million young people, 20.4 million unmarried women, and 9.8 million Hispanics did not vote.
Why did 79 million Americans—more than the total population of Great Britain or France—not vote in an historic election after an exciting campaign? As Professor Nathaniel Persily of Columbia Law School testified before the Senate Rules Committee, “The United States continues to make voting more burdensome than any other industrialized democracy.”
As an organization focused on encouraging the political participation of the nation’s 53 million unmarried women, Women’s Voices. Women Vote recently released a report, “Access to Democracy: Identifying Obstacles Hindering the Right to Vote” by Scott E. Thomas, former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, and Alicia C. Insley and Jenifer L. Carrier.
The report found that many states have confusing and cumbersome registration requirements, limited options to cast ballots before Election Day, complicated voter ID requirements, inconsistent rules regarding casting and counting provisional ballots, and varied regulations regarding the maintenance of voter lists. These obstacles make registering and voting especially difficult for underrepresented groups who tend to move more often, have less formal education and income, hold jobs where they can’t take time off during the day, and, especially among immigrants, lack common forms of identification.
The best way to encourage voter participation is to enact a Federal Universal Voter Registration Act. This would establish a national mandate for universal voter registration within each state. Federal funds would be provided to the states to create permanent voter registration systems that will allow voters to stay on the rolls when they move.
Short of this comprehensive initiative, five other reforms would bring the nation closer to the goal of full voter participation.
First, same day registration would allow eligible Americans to register on Election Day. In the 2008 presidential election, voter participation rates were highest in the states that allowed same day registration—69 percent, compared to 62 percent.
Second, there needs to be more clarity about voter qualifications, including whether people without permanent addresses or felons who have served their time are now eligible to vote. Qualifications should be similar in different states; the nation must not return to the days when arbitrary poll taxes and literacy tests set discriminatory standards in some parts of the country.
Third, registration deadlines should not vary from Election Day to a month or more before.
Americans who are excited about a presidential campaign debate a week before the election should not be told it is too late to register and vote.
Fourth, registration should be brought into the 21st Century. Busy Americans should be allowed to register online so that they do not have to wait in line.
Fifth, there should be “no excuses” early and absentee voting. As of January, 2009, 32 states allow no-excuse early voting, 15 require excuses, and four do not allow early voting at all. There is no reason why states should not allow no-excuses early voting.
The U.S. still lags behind most other advanced democracies in the percentage of the population that votes in national elections. We can correct this condition by simply removing the obstacles to expanding American democracy.
Page Gardner is the president and CEO of Women’s Voices. Women Vote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing the involvement of women in the public policy process.