Democracy in America: We Can Do Better

by Mathias Gibson

No matter what happens on Tuesday, November 8th, we’ll still have the same electoral system, flaws and all. Being an early mover is never easy, and as one of the first democracies in the modern era the American experiment has done quite well. But elections in the United States face continued attempts to restrict voting access, low voter turnout, and lingering operational inefficiencies. There are, however, encouraging structural reforms that are attempting to build a more accessible and representative system:

Automatic Voter Registration
The mere idea that voters need to register to vote is perplexing. When I was born, I was issued a nine digit number to track my official recognition as a citizen of this country. When I turned 18 I was enrolled in the Selective Service System (the “draft”). Every year I file taxes, and every four years or so I have to renew my driver’s license. But I still have to register to vote every time I move to a new county. Why is this process not deemed important enough to be the automated or set as the default? Instead, organizations, political action committees and concerned citizens are left to fill in the gap to make sure that citizens don’t get left off the voter rolls and out of the process.

Fortunately, some states are making headway towards this end: California, Connecticut, Oregon, Vermont, and West Virginia have passed Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) laws that register eligible citizens who interact with government agencies unless they decide to opt-out. The second best option, same-day registration, has been passed in Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Wyoming, with California, Hawaii, Maryland, Vermont soon to follow. And, believe it or not, online registration is not yet universal; 31 states have adopted it, with seven more currently in the process of implementing the program.

Universal Vote by Mail
The Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act (H.R. 1604, S. 3299) is currently moving through both houses of Congress in an attempt to ease many of the election day headaches that will arise in the coming weeks. Finding your designated polling place, getting to an election booth after a long day at work and waiting in long lines with an empty stomach is a lot to ask of a voter. True, an election holiday limit the time barrier many people face, but let’s be honest, it would really just turn into a four day vacation weekend. Some people relish the nostalgic ritual of exercising their democratic birthright amongst their fellow Americans in a neighbor’s garage or the local school auditorium. But for those who don’t have the time to endure the potentially arduous process, or simply don’t enjoy the ritual enough to put up with the inconvenience, voting by mail is a crucial method for accessing the process.

To date, only Colorado, Oregon and Washington have adopted voting by mail for all elections (called Universal Vote by Mail or UVBM). However, 19 other states use mail-in voting for some elections, and others only permit absentee voting. States that adopt UVBM save millions of dollars because they don’t need to establish polling places, pay polling staff or run separate elections for absentee voters. UVBM also makes maintaining and verifying voter rolls much easier by leaving a paper trail, and avoids access problems caused by identification, mobility problems or voter intimidation. Despite many people’s discomfort with the process, there has never been a case of substantial voter fraud in states that have adopted UVBM, and voter turnout has increased, especially among younger, older, poorer, and minority voters. America has the world’s best postal service, but they are being underutilized for ballots.

Ranked Choice Voting
No one wants most people’s last choice to sneak away with an election win in a divided field.  Ranked Choice Voting (RVC) allows voters to select more than one candidate at a time and rank them in order of preference from first to last choice. The candidates that receive the fewest first-place rankings are eliminated, and their votes are then redistributed until one candidate finally receives a majority of the votes.

The criticism against this process comes from some local experiments that show voters’ ranking in low-information campaigns led to confusion and arbitrary selection ranking. It’s true that the RCV works best in campaigns that are covered well in the media and have an informed electorate, but what election doesn’t? Instead of blaming the voters, we need to lower the information burden that we are asking them to carry while providing a system that allows them to accurately reflect their preferences.

Voter Fatigue
The American voter needs a break. The presidential campaign has been going on for 19 months, and the ballot initiative process places a heavy burden on the electorate to sift through large amounts of misleading information. We need to streamline and simplify the number of elections that we are asking voters to participate in, and not risk overburdening them to the point that people drop out or make uniformed decisions. Voters are asked to elect positions for which they lack sufficient information and criteria for evaluation, such as prosecutors and judges. If democratic participation is truly important in a process, we need to do more than go through the motions and re-evaluate why we are putting things on the ballot in the first place.

Right to Vote
House Joint Resolution 25 (H.J. Res. 25) is attempting to guarantee American citizens the right to vote. The U.S. Constitution, through the 15th and 19th amendments, bans restrictions on voting based on gender and race, but it stops short of guaranteeing citizens the right. Therefore, Congress lacks the proper authority to protect the individual right to vote and oversee voting policies and procedures that vary across states. In the meantime, this vital component of our democracy is constantly under attack from interest groups and suffers from a lack of transparency and standardization across the country.

Those vulnerable to intimidation, discrimination and accessibility issues need stronger protections of their voting rights, as do the  near  six million Americans convicted of felonies, who have already completed their sentences but remain disenfranchised. As is the case with most voting regulations, the rights of citizens are dependent on the state in which you reside. While 39 states automatically restore voting rights of ex-felons upon completion of their sentence, nine states only restore voting right for certain offenses, and Iowa and Florida require the governor’s personal approval for rights to be restored. Earlier this year, Kentucky’s Governor Matt Bevin signed legislation that restored the voting rights of ex-felons after a five year probationary period. This is an encouraging acknowledgement of the unnecessary burdens we place on those transitioning out of the justice system, and hopefully a sign of more to come.

District of Columbia
Despite having three electoral votes, the District of Columbia has no representation in the Senate, and their only representation in the House of Representatives is a non-voting delegate, who serves in the House of Representatives but is not permitted to vote on the floor of Congress. This may seem like a regional issue, but together with the Electoral College, it is philosophically out of step with our system based on equal representation. Legislators within DC are continuing to fight for equal representation, but it’s time for Congress to step up to the plate.

Electoral College
You may not be aware, but when you vote for president on November 8th you’ll actually be voting for “electors” who are selected by state political parties and belong to an institution called the Electoral College. These electors are party loyalists who have committed to support the party’s candidate if they win the state’s popular vote. Every state receives a number of electoral votes equal to the number of representatives it has in congress plus its two senators, and almost every state is winner-take-all, meaning that the winner of the state’s popular votes is awarded all of its electoral votes (Maine and Nebraska do not have winner-take-all systems). It’s a needlessly complex and outdated system that privileges the votes of those in swing states and less populous states, since even the smallest state receives a minimum of three electoral votes. It has even produced an Electoral College winner who did not receive at least a plurality of the nationwide popular vote, as happened in the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000.

Since this system is built into the constitution, and no-one is holding their breath for a constitutional amendment anytime soon, an organization called National Popular Vote Inc has begun lobbying states to pass a National Popular Vote bill that would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the entire U.S. So far it has passed in 11 states, with 165 electoral votes, and only needs another 105 electoral votes to take effect and effectively overrule the Electoral College altogether.


Mathias Gibson is a  Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and an Editor at PolicyMatters Journal