Voter Turnout: How to Hit 90% by 2010
by Tony Brasunas
On November 5, fully 37% of the nation's voting age population showed up at
the polls. This ranks us 139th out of 172 countries around the globe, and
dead last among the industrial democratic countries we consider our peers*.
Even places like India, Syria, and Venezuela beat us again and
So what's next -- 30% of us show up? 20%? Voter turnout has been slowly sliding
for decades, and it's time to take action and rescue this democracy. Four
bold but sensible changes would achieve 90% voter turnout by the year 2010.
Sound impossible? Many young democracies around the globe - countries that
Jimmy Carter visits as a "democracy observer" - routinely see over 80% of
eligible voters show up, while we the "Mother Democracy" have at our
disposal tremendous resources that sit idle. When 35 other nations regularly see over 80% turnout, 90% is a worthy and reasonable goal for the US.
Here's how to hit 90% by 2010:
- Make Election Day a national holiday. Complete with star-spangled
banners, apple pie, and TV documentaries on the wars our predecessors fought
to preserve our democracy, an Election Day holiday would be worthwhile and patriotic. Holidays change behavior. A day devoted to voting and
involving ourselves in politics will make us more active citizens and bring more of us to the polls.
Yes, the business community will oppose a new holiday, but the fact is we
have fewer holidays than any other industrial country and Election Day is
already a national holiday in many countries; perhaps make it a Wednesday to
reduce the temptation to take a four-day weekend. Delaware, Hawaii, and
several other states already treat Election Day as a holiday, but upon going
national the holiday will enter our collective awareness and become a phenomenon.
And in addition to fostering a celebration of our democracy, an Election Day
holiday would remove the classist problem workers have in getting off work
to vote - or justifying to their boss two hours away from work. Laws in many
states already require employers to let workers leave to vote, but only
if workers ask. An Election Day holiday would equalize boss and worker
in the eyes of our democracy, and ensure no one has to ask permission to
vote. Election Day would become a beautiful celebration of our democracy, a
time as festive, patriotic, and meaningful as the Forth of July.
- Improve voter choice by enabling voters to vote for whom they believe
in. A simple voting mechanism called "Instant Runoff Voting" (IRV), which is
already in use in many countries, allows voters to rank their choices in
order of preference. This eminently sensible voting
system is discussed in other articles (and in the resources section) of this issue of Garlic & Grass. But
simply put, IRV allows a Florida voter to designate Nader first and Gore
second - thus allowing him to voice his true beliefs while electing his
second preference. Gore wins, Bush goes back to Texas.
Best of all, IRV enables voters to express more of their
opinions and wishes to their government, which in turn creates a better,
more vibrant Democracy. By collecting more than a simple yes/no, Gore/Bush vote,
we more fully engage people and elect more representative voices to better
- Include "None of the Above." Once we have IRV and an Election Day holiday, we further enhance voter
choice by including on all ballots several opt-out choices: "None of the above,"
"I don't have enough information," and "I don't care." Thus the pollsters
and media learn still more about the will and feelings of common Americans.
Every year the corporate media tells us that voters are apathetic,
satisfied, or turned off - why not let voters tell us themselves?
This may sound like a joke to some, but for many it will make voting more inclusive and
- Use a small carrot instead of a big stick. With these reforms in place, we take the final step: institute a small
reward system to bring people to the booths. Upon voting, each voter
receives $100 - money that he or she has already paid on his or her April
tax return. The progressive in me would also make this a progressive tax:
those making less than $40,000 annually wouldn't pay the $100 in April but
would still get a $100 check upon voting (voter turnout today is lowest
among the poor); those making less than $150,000 would pay $100 and receive
$100; and those making over $150,000, who have succeeded in our American
system and whose turn it is now to sustain our American democracy, would pay
$500 and receive the standard $100 upon voting. This limited investment in
our democracy would pay tremendous dividends.
In some 30 countries, from Brazil to Italy to Australia, voting is mandatory
and failure to vote is punishable by law. We don't need forced voting in the US -- positive rather than negative consequences will work better anyway. No, it works like this: everyone goes to the polls, votes, gets $100, and then saves the money or enjoys a
fancy Election Day holiday dinner. Some may still view this as forced voting and forego
the $100, but how much coercion is it really with the "None of the above"
and "I don't care" options?
Other steps should be taken as well, from nonpartisan debate commissions to
proportional representation, but these four steps alone would bring us to 90% by
2010. And from there we'll be able to create public policy that truly
reflects the will of voters.
Ultimately, the question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want to make
voting an essential American activity? Isn't it time to do something bold?
Today many of us see voting as important but don't have time to vote, or
feel constrained to vote for a despised candidate. Let's take these
four sensible steps and enjoy the countless ways a reinvigorated democracy
will improve our lives and the lives of those around us.
Take the day off, Cast your vote, Take your $100, Celebrate
Tony Brasunas publishes Garlic & Grass. Contact him at
* Sources for statistics:
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