Voting should be simple. It shouldn’t require standing 11 hours in line. It shouldn’t cause thousands of ballots to be thrown out because of technical errors.The exercise of a constitutional right shouldn’t require dedication and diligence. Put simply, voting should be easy. Simplistic, efficient, and modernized nationwide voter registration systems are essential to increasing voter turnout and mitigating systemic flaws that contribute to voter suppression.
The National Register of Electors automatically registers all eligible Canadians over the age of 18 to vote in federal elections. This database continuously updates its voter list with extremely high levels of accuracy; as of last year, 96.4% of eligible voters were put on the voter list, and 93.2% of those eligible voters were listed at the correct home address. If anyone is not already automatically registered, or wishes to update their voter information (like their address after moving), they can do so by using over 35 forms of identification, including student IDs and expired driver’s licenses. Voting in Canada becomes even simpler with nationwide advance voting days, all with polling places open at identical times across all provinces. Regardless of these nationwide standards, Canadians can revoke their automatic registration at any time if they wish to do so. Furthermore, Canadians who are in correctional institutions or federal penitentiaries who choose to vote may do so through a special ballot. Canada’s exemplary voting system contributes to their consistently high voter turnout rates.
In contrast, the United States voter registration system bears many more complexities. Most eligible voters in the United States must register themselves to vote. Additionally, voters must keep up with their own state’s voter registration deadlines, early voting dates, and accepted forms of ID. 36 states require ID at the polls, and multiple states have strict photo ID laws. These restrictions on ID can pose a burden to low-income voters and voters with disabilities because there are multiple fees involved with obtaining an ID. Even the traveling involved in doing so poses a barrier to people (ex: without access to transportation). These restrictions on voter identification “reduce voter turnout by 2-3 percentage points, translating to tens of thousands of votes lost in a single state.” Furthermore, some states ban felons from voting for life. Many more states ban voting during incarceration, probation, and parole. Very few states allow for voting despite felony convictions. These voter laws inherently suppress voters, especially Black and Latinx voters who are disproportionately incarcerated due to the severe racial bias that persists in America’s prison systems.
The complexity of the United States voter registration system lies in the varied nuances among states, the differing deadlines that voters must keep track of themselves, and the individual barriers to self-registration that disproportionately impact particular communities. With its current system, the population of registered US voters make up an exceedingly small portion of all potential voters. The US has had one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the world, particularly among comparable democracies.
Though Canada’s voter registration system and nationwide regulations make way for more simplistic and efficient voting, completely adopting Canada’s exact voting system would be flawed, since the US has its own unique political culture and form of government. However, simplifying and modernizing the United States’ current voter registration system could drastically improve voter turnout by making voting equitable and less stressful for disadvantaged communities. Immigrant communities may be deterred from voting because of linguistic barriers and the costs of paperwork related to obtaining acceptable forms of ID. Making more voter material available in more languages eliminates these language barriers. Doing so has already improved voter turnout in immigrant communities, with translated voting ballots being found to be responsible for increasing voter turnout by 11 points in past elections.
Simplifying voting systems is also essential to combat groups who purposefully exploit the complexities of the US voter system to challenge ballots and suppress turnout. In the 2020 election, absentee ballots have become a source of confusion. According to Kadhim Shubber, US Legal and Enforcement Correspondent for Financial Times, some US states require voters to, “not just sign their own names, but also have a witness signature. Some ballots have already been thrown out because this witness requirement has tripped up voters.” Though strides have been made to remove the witness signature requirement in some states, Republican efforts to keep and/or reinstate the requirement have been successful in others. Ultimately, the overarching intricacy and nuance in the US voter system allows for the exploitation of loopholes to suppress voters and discourages minority, low-income, and/or disabled voters from casting their ballot.
Currently, different organizations are working hard to mitigate the issues that arise from the US’s complex voting system, and ensure a large voter turnout for the 2020 federal election. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently sued the current administration to remove a citizenship question to the Census that was meant to reduce the participation by immigrant communities, and thus reduce their political influence and representation in certain states. In the process of suing, the ACLU, “uncovered documents proving that attacking immigrants was the administration’s goal all along, and that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lied to Congress to hide it.”
Additionally, the Brennan Center for Justice is working on multiple projects for voter reform, including implementing automatic voter registration in 17 states, where it has successfully increased voter registration rates. They also want to improve ballot design to ensure that confusing ballot layouts and instructions no longer prevent voters from casting their ballot or from doing so correctly. Actions like these, in addition to pushing states to improve security, tracking widespread efforts of voter suppression, and pushing the federal administration to strengthen and protect the Voting Rights Law, are essential to simplifying the US voter system and increasing voter turnout.
The 2020 US Election had the highest voter turnout in American history. This historical turnout was the result of persistent and motivated voters and workers, including students, waiting 10+ hours in line to cast their ballots, essential workers helping to ensure COVID safety standards are being met at the polls, and non-profit organizations working to inform and guide new voters. The US government needs to drastically improve its voter registration system to reduce the hoops that these voters and workers have to jump through to fulfill their constitutional right of voting. Creating automatic voter registration, simplifying ballot design, and allowing a wider range of identification will make voting equitable, simple, and efficient – all traits that voting should inherently have.
Image via Flickr (Maryland GovPics)