If you’re one of the nearly 126 million people who voted in this past election, give yourself a pat on the back. Unlike you, there are millions of people who didn’t participate in this election, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even in 2008, which had the highest voter turnout in decades, only 62% of eligible citizens voted. Compared to that year, 5 million fewer people voted in 2012 for a total of 93 million eligible citizens who did not vote.
When this figure is compared to those of other countries, the U.S. ranks quite poorly in voter turnout, ranking below the Dominican Republic and 120 other countries. When nations like Australia and Singapore can have regular turnouts of over 90%, why don’t more people in the U.S vote?
One of the obstacles preventing people from voting is that there are haphazard rules regarding voter registration across the country. Rather than having the federal government establish standardized rules, the country has opted to allow individual states to set registration procedures.
The United States is also one of only a few democracies in the world where the government does not take responsibility for automatically registering voters. Instead, the country leaves the construction of voter rolls up to partisan and non-partisan voter registration organizations, election officials and active citizens. This can lead to inaccuracy in voting rolls, such when a person moves to another state and registers to vote there without canceling the previous registration.
In contrast, the international norm is to automatically register every citizen who reaches voting age and of every person who becomes a citizen. Citizens are automatically placed on voter rolls upon reaching voting age and/or government officials actively work to register all citizens. For example, in Iraq’s first democratic elections, election officials automatically transferred the names of Iraqis from ration lists to voter rolls.
The U.S. can move towards a system of automatic registration by using verified data from other government agencies to increase the accuracy of voter rolls. And as a fail-safe, citizens should be able to register on the same day as Election Day as to not disenfranchise voters who could not resister earlier. Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie attributes same day registration as the reason why Minnesota is state with the highest voter turnout rate in the nation in 12 of the past 16 elections.
“It’s clearly a critical factor,” he says. “Election Day registration can increase voter turnout by 500,000 people in a presidential election year. And more than 60 percent of Minnesotans have taken advantage of it in their lifetime.”