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Analysis: Pointing the Finger When It Comes to Low Texas Voter Turnout

Before you blame voters for Texas' remarkably low election turnout, look at state law. If elections were run by a business, and if high voter turnout was a goal, wouldn't they be trying to make it easier to vote instead of harder?

Voters wait in line at the University of Texas Co-op to cast their ballots in the March 1, 2016 primary elections.

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If voter turnout is really going to be used as the measure of civic health in Texas, legislators should make voting compulsory.

You know that’s not going to happen — and that’s okay because not voting is also a way of registering your opinion. Perhaps you don’t care who wins, you don’t put much importance on a particular election or a particular lineup of candidates makes you want to hold a pillow over your face and scream.

So don’t vote if you don’t want to. It’s your franchise, to do with as you will.

Yours, that is, except when lawmakers impose regulations that make voting more difficult: restricting when people are allowed to register to exercise their right to vote, limiting early voting times and locations and which kinds of proof of identification the authorities will allow.

If lawmakers wanted everybody to vote, they would make it easier.

They would be working to find and remove impediments to voting, the same way successful businesses smooth the path between their customers and their products.

You still have to stand in line to see a bank teller once in a while, but it’s rare. Any grocery store that’s on the ball will open more checkout lanes when traffic picks up. Cities that have their acts together sync up the traffic signals so you can hit green lights on the way out of town.

Not everyone is good at this. Long lines are regular features at ball games and concerts. Those lines are a specialty of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Companies introduce smartphones without headphone jacks and tinker with the recipe for the most successful soft drink in history.

At least the stadium vendors are trying to solve it. New Coke evaporated. Someone will design a jack for the jackless phone.

Texas voter turnout really does stink in comparison with some other states, and turnout in the United States is lower than in other countries.

Rated against its peers, the United States is in the bottom half for turnout. According to the Pew Research Center, we are 31st among the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In the 2012 presidential election, 53.6 percent of the country’s adults voted. That’s better than Switzerland (38.6 percent in 2015) and Latvia (51.7 percent in 2014), but not nearly as good as Mexico (64.6 percent in 2012) or Turkey (84.3 percent in 2015).

And in a nation that lags other nations, Texas lags other states, ranking 48th in turnout in 2012, according to the U.S. Elections Project, with turnout of 49.6 percent (not as high as Latvia’s!) of the adult population. Our own Texas secretary of state’s office offers up a better number and a worse one for that year: As a percent of registered voters in 2012, Texas turnout was 58.6 percent; as a percentage of the voting age population, it was 43.7 percent.

You might conclude that we harbor a lot of lazy voters. You might mind, or not, that unmotivated voters stayed at home. And you might think that the turnout would have been the same without voter photo ID laws. Or with same-day voter registration. Or if voter registration was automatically included on citizens’ driver licenses. Or if the political districts for members of Congress and the Texas Legislature were drawn to give voters more choices in general elections instead of to protect the incumbent parties from fickle Texans.

That’s what the courts are starting to say in response to a wave of lawsuits challenging voter ID and other laws — that some states are intentionally or unintentionally disenfranchising their own voters.

North Carolina’s case got the most attention because it drew the sharpest rebuke from a federal appeals court. But the Texas law also ran into interference in federal court.

So don’t vote if you don’t want to. It’s your franchise, to do with as you will. Yours, that is, except when lawmakers impose regulations that make voting more difficult.

Perhaps lawmakers will take the hint and try to set up elections the way a business would set up a service, with the goal of making it as easy as possible to securely vote.

It’ll never be perfect. ATMs get robbed once in a while, but the banks have managed their security problems without getting in the way of their customers. This is a frame-of-mind issue: Voting is designed around worries about what might go wrong. People who are eligible to vote are sometimes denied that right when the state tries to keep the smallest thing from going wrong. Voter ID is an example: State officials said identification voter fraud was “rampant” but couldn’t substantiate the claim in court. Meanwhile, their opponents proved the remedy stranded 600,000 eligible Texas voters who didn’t have any of the legislature’s required forms of identification.

You might deride the couch potatoes who didn’t vote, but you can’t blame those 600,000. Maybe they would have voted and maybe they wouldn’t have, but at least it would have been their own personal choice.

Here’s a thought: Stop blaming the voters. Instead, blame the people who make it harder to vote.

Maybe that would increase turnout.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

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