As long as voter fraud is held at bay, easing the voting process can only mean a better democracy. We may have to give up some of the casualness of small-town life, like having to present identification rather than just nodding at the ballot clerk we’ve known for years, but the benefits to the republic far outweigh the individual effort.
Forty-five percent of voting-age Americans sat out the 2004 presidential election, arguably a critical choice between two very different visions for the country. In 2000, that closest of presidential elections, nearly 49 percent were unable, or unwilling, to work voting into their to-do lists. Ironically, many of those 49 percent probably were glued to their TV screens, watching the recount battle.
It’s easy to dismiss low voter turnout as cynicism about the federal government, the candidates and the campaign process. Surveys show there are, indeed, many angry, deliberate nonvoters. But whether deliberate or not, the ramifications of half the population ignoring elections are quite serious.
For one thing, nonvoters are not evenly dispersed among all age, income and national origin groups, or even genders, so politicians are able to ignore the needs and views of certain segments of the electorate.
Younger citizens and those with lower incomes are less likely to vote. For years, men have led women in not voting, but women are gaining in this statistic.
It’s not hard to extrapolate reasons to explain these numbers. Younger men and women, perhaps renting in a community, are not plugged into the municipal system or local issues. Younger citizens also may be juggling education, multiple jobs and odd work hours. Lower-wage earners face obvious barriers to getting to the polls with limited transportation, child care and work flexibility.
Maine often leads the nation in voter turnout. The state would serve as an ideal subject for a study of the effect of easing voter requirements. Maine allows same-day voter registration (with ID), is generous with absentee voting, and does not routinely press for official identification at the polls. But a new statewide electronic database will help curb voter fraud.
So would asking voters to show a driver’s license at the polls. Writing a check at Wal-Mart requires as much. Raising the standards on voting should parallel easing access to the polls.
Early voting, which is essentially filling out an absentee ballot and turning it in to a municipal clerk in person, is growing in Maine. It should not be discouraged.
The only downside to early voting is that a ballot cast on, say, Oct. 15 may be regretted if new details emerge about a candidate on Oct. 20. Just days before the 2000 presidential election, news broke that George W. Bush had once been arrested for OUI in Maine. Some observers believe that information suppressed voter turnout among conservative Christians, who were inclined to vote for Mr. Bush.
But generally, given the deluge of information available, we know the candidates very well by October. If more participation is a worthy goal, early voting is a good mechanism to achieve it.