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Politics and Economy:
Election 2004
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America Votes

It's a puzzle — voter registration in the United States is at an all-time high but voter participation is nearing an all-time low. In the 1964 presidential elections 69.3 percent of the voting age population cast a ballot. In 2002, that number was only 54.7 percent, up 0.3 percent from 1996. The numbers for midterm elections are worse.

Who Votes and Who Doesn't?      

During the midterm election in 1998, only 36.4 percent of the voting age population made it to the polls...

Some historians point out that the United States has never been a place where the population turned out in droves to the polls. Even when the franchise was restricted to white, property-owning men, the percentage of eligible voters participating rarely reached 50 percent. From an international perspective, the United States ranks 139th out of 172 countries in voter turnout. Some countries are using old and new methods to increase voter turnout — read about them below. The U.S. Federal Elections Commission anticipates that 15 percent of all votes cast this election cycle will be cast early. Find out what's on your state's ballot and see how you rank in voter turnout. Learn more about protecting voter's rights and the controversy over new voting technologies documented in NOW's "One Person, One Vote?"

  • Compulsory Voting: Is voting a right or a responsibility? There are democracies who swing both ways. Requiring citizens to vote is not a new idea, although it has never been put into practice in the United States. The first country to insist that its citizens vote was Belgium, introducing mandatory voting laws in 1892. It is interesting to note that Australia, a nation that is often compared in frontier spirit to the United States, has had compulsory voting since 1924.

    Some nations have ceased to require that citizens vote but Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Singapore, Switzerland, Uruguay and others have the laws on the books — and enforce them. Penalties range from fines to disfranchisement for repeat offenders.

  • Voting by Mail: Some countries extend the opportunity to vote by mail to those who are not away from their election district. Canada, Spain, The United Kingdom, Germany, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark will all send ballots to any interested citizen. Use of voting by mail services varies widely — almost 40 percent use it in Finland, only four percent in the United Kingdom. In 1998, Oregon passed a ballot initiative that replaced typical polling-place voting with a statewide vote by mail program. Other states — including Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Washington State — allow mail-in voting at one level or another. In some places, mail-in voting is only used for ballot questions, not for candidate races. Some critics argue that paying for a stamp to mail a ballot constitutes a new poll tax. Oregon has sites around the state where voters may drop off ballots without paying postage. Other locales have opted for postage-paid ballots.

  • Voting Early: Some countries increase turnout by extending the period of elections. In Sweden any voter may vote early at their local post office. This year the state of Texas is experimenting with early voting — polls in selected areas are open between seventeen days and four days prior to election day.

  • Internet Voting: Many people believe that internet voting will greatly increase voter participation. However, it might also offer greater ease of voting to wealthier households. Many countries are testing pilot projects. The state of California recently commissioned a study on the feasibility of internet voting. The panel, comprised of more than two dozen experts in the field of data security, elections and voter participation concluded that "the implementation of Internet voting would allow increased access to the voting process for millions of potential voters who do not regularly participate in our elections." But the commission also expressed serious concerns about "technological threats to the security, integrity and secrecy of Internet ballots" and did not recommend a wholesale move to Internet voting. The commission also noted current voting technology problems stating that "it is technologically possible to utilize the Internet to develop an additional method of voting that would be at least as secure from vote-tampering as the current absentee ballot process in California." (Read the California Internet Voting Task Force Report)

  • Election Day Registration: Election Day Registration (EDR), also known as "same-day voter registration," permits eligible citizens to register and vote on Election Day. In the 2000 election, six states — Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming — permitted voters to register and vote on Election Day. These states had considerably higher voter participation and registration rates than the national average — 68 percent voter turnout for the EDR states as opposed to 59 percent nationwide. Critics contend that same-day registration will lead to greater voter fraud. Supporters maintain that election officials and trained poll workers are the best prepared to combat fraud.

  • New Voting Legislation: In the wake of the controversial 2000 elections, the federal government has passed legislation to streamline and safeguard the American election system. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) requires that states make a number of changes beginning in 2004, including issuing provisional ballots, creating statewide computerized voter lists, allowing for "second chance" voting, and increasing access for disabled voters. States will receive federal funds for each of these purposes, and will receive general funds "to improve the administration of elections." However, to be eligible for such funds, each state must design a plan, pass enabling legislation, and devote a small amount of state funds to HAVA implementation. Each state must develop its implementation plan through a process that includes citizen participation and a public review.
  • Sources: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance; Federal Elections Commission (FEC); "The Impact of the National Voter Registration Act on Federal Elections," FEC; Historical Date Sets, U.S. Census Bureau; American Election Statistics, George Washington University; Oxford Companion to American History

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