When I think of the 2012 Obama campaign, I am proud of so many things we accomplished. But one thing I wasn’t totally satisfied with was voter turnout.
It’s not that we didn’t meet our goals—we actually surpassed them, especially in key states. The numbers were stark: We won nine of the ten battleground states, registered 1.8 million new voters, and built a grassroots army of more than 2 million volunteers who made 146 million calls and door knocks over the course of the electoral cycle. Yet the really telling stats are the ones no one is discussing—specifically who failed to cast his or her vote in either this past election or any election in the last decade.
In 2012, 60 percent of eligible voters (129 million American citizens) headed to the polling booth, including the largest number of voters ever among African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans, and large numbers of women and young people—many of whom voted for the first time ever. But when 40 percent (86 million American citizen adults) are not voting, the simple fact is our society—and democracy writ large—suffers.
The fundamental problem is that the way we exercise our right to vote remains trapped in the 19th century. Some election officials still use unwieldy reams of paper to check off voters, voting machines vary from precinct to precinct and frequently break, and voters are driving to city hall or the public library to get their voter registration forms in many states.
What’s more, it’s costing Americans to participate in the process both in terms of the time and effort they must invest in order to register and vote—and in taxpayer dollars. In Oregon, where voter turnout is remarkably high in comparison with the rest of the nation, the state spends $4.11 to process each voter registration form. Meanwhile in Canada, the average cost is less than thirty-five cents.
At the same time, lines to cast a ballot have been getting longer and longer, especially in urban and minority communities. Analytical studies of the 2012 election show the problem extends far beyond the anecdotal evidence of Florida early voters waiting for hours to enter the polling booth. In fact, MIT scholar Charles Stewart III found that while two-thirds of American voters waited less than ten minutes to vote, voters in low-income neighborhoods with high percentages of minorities often waited more than an hour. On average, African American voters across the country waited two times as long to vote as whites. Similarly, Hispanic voters waited a third longer than white voters.
The good news is the same innovative spirit and technological savvy that is making so many aspects of our lives easier—from travelling paper-free, to banking from home, to tracking on our smartphones how miles we’ve run or how many calories we’ve consumed—can also fix the problems with the way we vote. Digital technology and big data systems are continuing to change the world in which we live by helping us track massive amounts of data, protect against fraud, and democratize things that used to be the sole property of the elite and well-connected. It makes sense that those tools can help lead us to a more just and effective voting system as well.
The solutions already exist, and the policies are simply waiting to be adopted and enacted. In particular, by expanding online and automated voter registration, permitting no-excuse vote-by-mail, extending early voting, and implementing portable and Election Day registration, we can finally bring our voting system into the 21st century
If we do all these things we will not only improve democracy in America—we will save significant taxpayer dollars in the process.
One state leading the way on making voting both easier and more accessible is Colorado. In May, Governor John Hickenlooper signed a sweeping measure passed by both houses of the legislature that not only requires ballots be mailed to every single registered voter in Colorado but also permits registration through Election Day. Among the provisions included are a longer early voting period, a shorter time required for state residency to qualify to vote, and the ability to vote at any precinct within the voter’s county. What’s more, the law leaves it up to voters how they choose to cast their ballots during early vote or on Election Day—by mail, by dropping off the ballot, or in-person if that’s their preference.
We’re also seeing results in places like Washington State, which is a great case study on the benefits of expanding online and automated voter registration. Thanks to automated opt-in voter registration in the state’s Department of Licensing (DOL) offices, Washington saw cost savings amounting to $126,000 in 2008 alone, according to studies conducted by the Brennan Center. In addition, voters saved more than $90,000 in postage that would have been required to mail in their registration forms. It’s no wonder that Washington’s system has been popular with both the state and voters. In 2004, 15 percent of total registrations were completed at DOLs. By 2009, just a year after the state fully adopted and implemented online and automated registration, that number had jumped to 70 percent of total registrations.
While online and automated registration are key to easing the process for new voters, we know that increasing overall electoral participation can only happen if we improve the accessibility and convenience of voting, particularly for low-income and minority communities. That’s where policies that permit vote-by-mail and expand early voting come into play.
Oregon, Colorado, and Washington have already shown us what vote-by-mail can do for turnout. Oregon and Washington have instituted universal vote-by-mail, and both states have experienced voter participation rates that are significantly higher than the national average. Similarly, Colorado instituted the vote-by-mail option in 1992, and as awareness and education for this option increased, so has turnout. In 2012, Colorado had 70 percent turnout—and fully 82 percent of those voters cast their ballots before Election Day.
Instituting in-person early voting is another important piece that will help make it easier to vote, but this approach must go hand-in-hand with increasing early voting administrative resources and hours. In most states, early voting hours coincide with business hours and are shorter than Election Day hours. There are typically far fewer voting locations than on Election Day, and they are staffed with fewer poll workers and fewer machines. As a result, early voters have no choice but to travel greater distances to vote, and the expanded opportunity can be offset by the inconvenience.
One state that showcases how early voting can work well is Nevada. In 2008, 67 percent of Nevada voters voted early and 90 percent of Nevada early voters lived within 2.5 miles of an early vote site, further demonstrating the correlation between voting convenience and turnout. In 2012, Nevada offered two full weeks of early voting prior to Election Day with both permanent and mobile locations. Instead of the typical handful of staffers, mobile locations were run by teams of 10-12 election workers—and these locations changed sites every few days to ease the geographic burden on would-be voters. It’s not surprising then that in 2012, 69 percent of Nevadan voters cast their ballots prior to Election Day.
Finally, a crucial element of fixing our voting system is expanding portable and Election Day registration. Twenty-nine million voting age Americans move each year—that’s approximately one in eight people who would be eligible to vote—and 45 percent of voting age Americans move every five years. Yet most states require voters to re-register when they move to a new address. Portable voter registration would allow voters to keep their registration when they move.
Ten states currently allow voters to register and vote on Election Day: Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—and when California’s new law goes into effect it will bring the total to 11. There is no reason why that number should be less than 50.
Fortunately, organizations like Turbovote are working to make this process easier for voters: Their goal is to ensure voters only have to register once in their lifetime. But if we want to modernize our voting system to reflect both our values as a nation and our technological capabilities, we will need to build the political will to do it.
Last November, former Florida Republican Party chair Jim Greer came clean about efforts to suppress the Democratic vote in his home state by reducing early voting hours, saying, “the Republican Party, the strategists, the consultants, they firmly believe that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates…It’s done for one reason and one reason only…We’ve got to cut down on early voting because early voting is not good for us.”
We heard similar things in Pennsylvania when State House Republican leader Mike Turzai touted passing a law with serious voting restrictions, including “voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”
And it’s no coincidence that Texas Attorney General and presumed Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott put that state’s voter ID law into effect just hours after the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act this past June. What’s clear is the Texas voter ID law is designed to make it easier for certain people to vote and harder for others—under this law, a concealed handgun license is considered acceptable identification for voting while a student ID issued by a Texas university is not. It’s no wonder U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has already announced plans by the Department of Justice to fight the Texas law and other efforts by states seeking to capitalize on the court’s decision.
In North Carolina, the state’s new Republican governor and Republican state legislature approved a sweeping law last month to reduce early voting, eliminate voter registration during early voting, require voters to obtain photo ID, and impose a tax on parents of students who choose to vote on campus. Like Texas, the North Carolina law further discriminates against students by prohibiting them from using their North Carolina student ID to vote.
What these extreme comments and actions indicate is that we need a “common sense caucus” on voting rights. There are moderate Republicans who believe that elections should be about who has the best ideas—not who can change the laws to make it more difficult for their opponents to vote. We need to lift up those voices.
The ideas outlined above are just common sense solutions—and lawmakers in Washington should be taking action to implement them. Ultimately, driving up voter participation and making it easier to vote will help not only urban voters but provide greater access to the political process for voters in rural communities as well. That’s a goal leaders from both sides of the aisle should be able to support.
But we can’t wait for Washington.
States need to begin passing laws that reform and modernize our voting system—and begin seeing results the likes of those in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada. In fact this kind of a decentralized approach—using the states as “laboratories of democracy”—may be the only way to solve the problem
In Silicon Valley, former Obama staffer Jim Green recently started a venture called Technology for America (T4A). This group brings together the best and brightest of Silicon Valley together with mayors and other elected officials of either party who want to solve the big problems of our day. Every Secretary of State in this country should be banging down Jim's door asking how they can partner with Silicon Valley to come up with smart technology solutions to create a better voting system. If they don’t care or have the audacity to lead on this, we should fire them and vote in better Secretaries of State who do.
In the last election, 60 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, and many of those who did waited in unacceptably long lines to do so. As President Obama said in his acceptance speech on election night, “we have to fix that.”
The facts are clear on this front—we have the technology and the brilliant technologists to help us do just that. The question is whether or not national and state lawmakers have the political will. If not, we need to start electing political leaders who care about our democracy and understand that participation in it is critical to our success.
We made history in 2012—and in 2008—and I was deeply honored to be part of both amazing, transcendent campaigns. But history isn’t enough. We have to do better.
Jeremy Bird is a partner with 270 Strategies and served as National Field Director on the 2012 Obama for America Campaign. Follow @jeremybird on Twitter.