What Would Happen if Voting Were Easier?

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at a polling station in the Hancock Center on Tuesday Nov. 6, 2012 in Austin, Texas.
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at a polling station in the Hancock Center on Tuesday Nov. 6, 2012 in Austin, Texas.

If they really wanted you to vote, they would make it easy.

The people in politics and government encourage voting the same way other institutions encourage dieting, fitness and saving for retirement.

But those other institutions don’t create obstacles. And this is not a partisan complaint: both the Democrats and the Republicans in Texas have had many chances to change the system and, for their various reasons, have left things as they are.

Say what you will about voter registration, but in Texas you have to have that voting license all set up well before it’s time to actually vote.

Requiring photo identification might make it harder on people who aren’t supposed to vote, but it’s also a hassle for voting-age citizens.

In the relatively rare elections when turnout is decent, long lines at busier polling places — seemingly designed by the same people who prepared your after-work commute — are discouraging. According to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, the average wait in 2012 nationwide was 13 minutes. Not bad. But it wasn’t uniform: some of us walked right in and voted; others stood in line and waited much longer.

Only 44 percent of the state’s adults voted in November, according to the Texas secretary of state. And only about three-fourths of the adults in Texas were registered to vote. Some of the nonregistered adults aren’t citizens, and some are felons. That cuts into the percentage, but it is a separate argument; by almost any measure, turnout was pretty sorry. In that same presidential election, the national average turnout was 57.5 percent.

It’s worse in the years when elections for governor top the ballot instead of races for president. The general election in November 2010 attracted 26.5 percent of the state’s adults. Primaries are worse still.

Suppose someone wanted to make it so easy to vote that not voting became a form of protest instead of a sign of apathy and malaise.

What if voting qualified you for a prize? Somebody had the idea — quickly squelched by the adults in state government — to create a special lottery prize that would be attainable only by voters. Just think: the warm feeling of participating in civics along with the chance to win millions.

Texas could chase Australia, fining citizens who do not vote and do not have a good excuse. It’s a small fine — about $18 — but it’s a fine.

Election officials could sit down with bankers to find out why it is possible to use a cellphone to move money securely from one account to another or shop or sign mortgages online, but it’s not secure to vote with that same phone while sitting in a restaurant or on a bus bench outside City Hall.

Other states have adopted instant voter registration. The Brennan Center report suggests simply registering people to vote when they’re interacting with government in other ways, like getting licensed to drive or paying bills at a municipal utility. That would require government agencies to talk to one another, a level of efficiency officeholders are usually unable to achieve or successfully demand, but it would streamline that part of elections.

Texans can register to vote in some of those places, but there’s not a universal form that covers everything: license, registration, etc. The state’s online system doesn’t allow citizens to register — it just tells them where and how to register. It’s easier than it used to be, but it could be easier still.

And here’s another thing: Voter registration drives produce more voter registrations, but not necessarily more voters

Perhaps it is unfair to ask the beneficiaries of the current election system to change it in a way that could ruffle their feather beds. Laws on legislative ethics and voting just aren’t very susceptible to reform: it is always hard to get politicians to act in the general interest when their own self-interests are at stake.

Here’s another uncertainty about messing with the current system. Suppose it could be done in a way that got everyone voting without raising serious questions about security and voter fraud. Suppose practically everyone eligible to vote in an election in Texas actually did so.

Would we get the same results we get now?

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