Elections have become rather like big, unsuccessful birthday parties, where you invite everyone you know and half of them don’t show up. In the 2010 Massachusetts governor’s race, one of every two adults didn’t vote. And if last month’s primary is any indication, turnout this year may be even lower. Why is that? And what can be done to fix it?
Beginning in 2016, Massachusetts is going to introduce early voting. The only problem is that there’s a strong consensus among researchers that early voting doesn’t work. And the reforms that do work — including same-day registration — aren’t being implemented here.
Why don’t people vote?
For some, the only way to vote is by missing work and losing wages, or by making special arrangements for transportation, or by altering their day care. And those are costs they can’t always bear.
Also, given that many people face such trade-offs, we don’t make voting all that easy. We hold elections on Tuesdays, when many people have to work. Polling places sometimes have long lines (and even if adults can wait, their kids have a tougher time). And if you don’t remember to register until the final, heated weeks of the campaign, it’s already too late.
Why doesn’t early voting help?
It seems like an obvious fix: If people are having trouble getting to the polls on Election Day, let them come the day before or the week before. But it’s been tried in dozens of other states, with few benefits. A 2010 review of early voting concluded that “the balance of evidence suggests a general failure to significantly increase voter participation, especially among those least likely to vote.”
There are a couple of possible explanations. For one thing, people who don’t generally vote are less plugged in to election happenings, which means they’re unlikely to hear about the availability of early voting. Also, adding more days doesn’t fundamentally change the trade-off people face.
If it’s hard to get to the polls on Election Day Tuesday, it’s also hard to get there the Tuesday before.
The Massachusetts early voting law does have one promising feature: It allows for weekend and evening voting, which could eliminate a key hurdle.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t guarantee weekend voting. It lets individual towns and cities decide. And that makes it harder to educate voters about how early voting works and when they can head to the polls.
What does work?
One change that seems to have a big impact on turnout is same-day registration. If you want to vote, you just show up at your polling place with a valid ID, register on the spot, and then cast your ballot.
Ten states currently offer same-day registration, including nearby Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine. At one point, Massachusetts’ early voting bill included same-day registration, but that provision didn’t make it into the final bill. Instead, the Massachusetts law allows for online registration, which will certainly make registering easier but probably won’t have the same, broad impact on turnout.
How about voting by mail?
In Washington, Oregon, and now Colorado, all qualified voters receive a ballot in the mail, which they can fill out at home and send back. Whether this boosts voting remains unclear (though the addition of Colorado to the club may help provide an answer).
For its part, Massachusetts has some of the most stringent rules on absentee voting. To vote by mail or obtain an absentee ballot, voters must certify that they’ll be out of town, or that they cannot go to the polls because of a disability or religious belief.
Do campaigns make a difference?
Campaigns are vital, because nothing affects turnout so much as old-fashioned get-out-the-vote efforts like door-knocking, targeted phone calls, and offering rides to the polls. If you really want people to vote, you need to meet them where they are and give them the information and assistance they need to participate.
It’s even possible that campaign involvement could help make early voting work here in Massachusetts. It all depends on how candidates use the additional hours. Will they shift their get-out-the-vote efforts to exploit this new opportunity? Will they find ways to connect unlikely voters with the new voting options? As I noted before, the research suggests that in general this doesn’t happen. But politics is an evolving art. And as the voting landscape changes, campaigns can change too.
Do we even want more voters?
Boosting turnout isn’t really the goal. The deeper issue is that when you look at the people who vote, you find that they don’t reflect the diversity of views and experiences that shape our Commonwealth.
Voters tend to be older, for one thing. In 2010, about 65 percent of seniors voted on Election Day, compared to just 22 percent of those under 25. Voters are also richer and whiter. More than half of whites voted in 2010, compared with one in three blacks and one in seven Hispanics.
Effective voting reforms don’t just bring out more voters. They address this underlying imbalance, helping to ensure that our elected officials represent the entire population of Massachusetts.