Election Day is arguably the most important day of the year for American citizens to exercise their right to vote and make their voices heard to determine the path the country takes. Voting is at the heart of democracy, and yet, we allow our politics to be determined by a relatively low percentage of eligible-voter turnout.
In the presidential election of 2012, for example, just over 51 percent of the eligible population voted, though more than 80 percent of the population was registered. Voter turnout in America’s 2012 election was only higher than the Japanese, Chilean and Swiss elections, and lower than at least 30 other countries that held their elections during or around the same year, according to Pew Research Center calculations. American midterms have historically had significantly lower turnouts, with the 2014 elections being decided by only 36.3 percent of eligible voters, the lowest turnout in 72 years.
There are several reasons that contribute to low voter turnout, but it unfortunately seems that this low turnout benefits groups in power. Efforts to gerrymander districts to distribute low voter turnouts across strategic districts have been blasted in recent political debate. Perhaps even more telling is the disenfranchisement of minority voters across racial and socioeconomic divides. These efforts have recently become more blatant, highlighting America as a partisan battlefield for control.
In Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp who is running for governor this year, stalled 53,000 voter applications with disproportionately high numbers of black voters. The New York Times reports, the state uses a controversial “exact match” method that will purge voters for even trivial details that do not match government records such as entry errors or dropped hyphens.
Voter ID laws also run rampant in Georgia and other states that require photo IDs to be presented before voting. This also disproportionately hurts black voters, as a far smaller percentage of them have driver’s licenses and the inconvenient hours of operations for identification centers add more obstacles to casting a ballot, generally helping secure Republican victories, the Washington Post reports.
State voter regulations help shape the political battlefield, sometimes by encouraging participation, and unfortunately, sometimes by barring participation. But national voting protocols do little to encourage widespread participation.
Election Day was established as the first Tuesday of November for a Christian agrarian society after telegraph technology allowed for instant communication. Having a single established day for elections would prevent results from states influencing the results of other states that had not yet voted. Nov. 1 is All Saints Day, so this rule ensured that Election Day would not interfere and having it on Tuesday allowed voters to begin traveling by horseback on Monday if need be, without interfering with the Sabbath on Sunday. Having elections in November was also convenient because it was well after the harvest was over.
Certainly the initial establishment of Election Day made sense at the time, but is now archaic in today’s modern society that revolves around the eight-hour-a-day work week. Many states began addressing this by implementing mail ballots and early voting, but many states including Oklahoma, Missouri, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Virginia, Kentucky and New Hampshire have no such options. This means that depending on one’s geographical location in the country, eligible voters may be required to endure long lines to cast their ballot in person at a specific location within a given time window.
For many Americans, this is impossible. Those without means of transportation may not be able to vote. Those without the ability to take time off work on a Tuesday may not be able to vote. And of course in some places, those without valid photo IDs will not be able to vote either.
All of these factors point to a disenfranchisement of working-class and poor eligible voters who are at the discretion of bosses and state laws. This naturally intersects across racial lines, as black and hispanic populations are systematically disadvantaged and disproportionately under the poverty line.
The good news is this particular issue could hypothetically be addressed with relative ease. If Election Day was deemed a national holiday as Columbus Day is, significantly more people would have the opportunity to vote without risking their jobs. Or perhaps America could follow suit to Belgium and the several other countries that adopted compulsory voting, making voting a civil duty rather than a civil right with possible penalties for failing to vote or formally declining to do so. Many states have begun implementing automatic voter registration as well, ensuring that less people fail to vote simply because they missed the deadline for registration or did not know how to do so. Even simply moving the official day of elections to a Saturday could begin to address the modern day inconveniences of voting. So why haven’t we?
Simply put, it is beneficial to those in power to make voting inconvenient. Low voter turnout that excludes a large portion of minority citizens is much more manageable than the population at large when it comes to gerrymandering them to encourage an election result. If all citizens were to vote, might our politics look different today? With such a larger base of voters to win over, campaigns might be a little more civil, thriving to address the concerns of the population at large rather than playing into the identity politics that come with nondescript political labels.
Ironically, the only way to face this issue head on is to implement new political policies, so it is crucial that absolutely everyone who is able to vote confronts all these obstacles head on to cast their ballot for the future.