Four things the District can try to send election turnout through the roof


Article Highlights

  • How changing the rules and processes could significantly increase voter participation?

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  • To create a healthier democracy, a great opportunity to use the District as a laboratory for some cutting-edge ideas.

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  • Voting idea: Up-to-date registration system: bring tech to the election

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Voter turnout in the District is generally abysmal. With rare exceptions — a presidential election with an African American at the head of the ticket, for example — turnout in the city falls at the lower end of a national spectrum that is pretty poor to begin with. In some ways this is no surprise; for those of us living in the District, voting can be a drag. First, we have no voting representation in Congress. Second, the general elections are almost always pro forma; the District is so overwhelmingly Democratic that the only contest that matters is the Democratic primary.
Those issues aren’t likely to change anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean turnout has to remain at such low levels. The District is ripe for a dramatic experiment that could show how changing the rules and processes could significantly increase voter participation.
Unlike North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas, where lawmakers have tried multiple ways to suppress votes to maintain partisan political advantage, the climate here isn’t hostile to voters. Rather, there is every reason for political figures, election officials and citizens to work together to create a healthier democracy. This creates a great opportunity to use the District as a laboratory for cutting-edge ideas. Here is what the city should do:
1. Move Election Day to the weekend. As the group has pointed out, the practice of holding elections on Tuesdays stems from an 1845 law meant to accommodate an agrarian society that is long gone. Today, voting on a workday is a burden for most Americans, and it just isn’t necessary. The District is free to move its local elections to the weekend. Ideally, Election Day would be a 24-hour period running from noon Saturday to noon Sunday, to avoid both religious conflicts and the inevitable morning and evening “rush hours” created by voters flocking to the polls before and after work. But if voting over two days is too onerous or expensive, the city could have Election Day on either Saturday or Sunday, with early voting a few days beforehand for those who are away on the weekend or can’t vote on the Sabbath.
2. Use modern technology to bring voting into the 21st century. A core recommendation of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration was to create an up-to-date registration system in each state, including streamlining the registration process. The D.C. system is not in bad shape, but this is a chance not only to follow the commission’s guidelines but also to go further. The law requires voters to go to a specific polling place near their homes. But there is no technical reason why voters could not visit any convenient polling place — near home, near work or elsewhere — and get a personalized ballot created on the spot. When I drop off a rental car, the attendant scans the license plate, checks the gas level and uses a handheld device to print out a detailed receipt in seconds. Such technology should not be difficult to apply to voters. If the great tech gurus and philanthropists in the city put their minds and a few dollars to the task, they should be able to create the software and hardware to make it happen.
3. Create vote centers. Larimer County, Colo., north of Denver, lets voters go to a series of conveniently located vote centers, using big-box stores and other spots that have ample parking and can pool poll workers and technicians to fix glitches in equipment. How about using the Verizon Center and Nationals Park in the same way? Imagine if voters could go to the Verizon Center and meet sports stars John Wall and Alex Ovechkin? Or go to Nationals Park and, after voting, take their children down to the field to run the bases? Kids would learn to associate the duty to vote with something unique and pleasurable. Knowing the civic pride of the Lerner family, which owns the Nationals, and Verizon Center owner Ted Leonsis, I have to believe they would be delighted to make this happen.
4. Do a lottery. Few things motivate Americans quite like a lottery. Why not hold a one as a vote motivator? Perhaps a civic-minded auto dealer would donate a car. A winner could be chosen at random from the voter registration rolls — but to get the car the person would have to prove that he or she voted. News about some poor sap who lost a Cadillac because of a skipped election would make a real difference the next election.
It is possible, of course, that none of these things would move the needle much on turnout. But we have an opportunity to test out ideas to make voting easy and fun, instead of annoying and a pain — and if turnout substantially improved, we would have a powerful argument for employing some of these ideas on a broader scale.
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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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