• Sharon Chau

How Can We Increase Turnout?



Summary:

  • There is low voter turnout because of political alienation and a lack of faith in the electoral system, and because there is a high opportunity cost in voting.

  • Two categories of solutions can be used to battle low voter turnout - restoring faith and making it easier to vote.

  • Restoring faith in the political system can be done through the public finance of electoral campaigns and a democratic Citizens' Assembly; lowering the opportunity cost of voting can be done through increasing voting booths, making voter registration easier, incorporating more technology into the voting process and using mailed votes.


Reasons for Low Voter Turnout


Voter turnout is at an all time low, especially among the youth. In the 2016 United States presidential election, only 56% of those eligible to vote turned up to the ballot box. As for the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK, only 64% of registered voters aged 18-24 cast a ballot. This disturbing trend bodes ominously for our democracy. A low voter turnout mean the voting outcome is unrepresentative, as it disproportionately amplifies the voices of those who turned out to vote.


In order to devise solutions, one must first understand the root cause of the problem. What are the reasons for such a low voter turnout? One reason is political alienation and a lack of faith in the electoral system as a whole. Many people believe the political system to be corrupt and stacked against them, especially due to the prevalence of high-profile campaign financing and lobbying. Consequently, they believe any amount of participation would be ineffective in changing the fundamentally broken system. Another reason for low voter turnout is the high opportunity cost of voting. Taking time off work, travelling to a polling station, waiting in line to cast your vote - voting requires time, money and effort.


Solutions to Low Voter Turnout


Given these problems, there are two categories of solutions we can deploy to increase voter turnout. The first category is aimed at general reform of the political system to restoring voter faith. The second category is to reduce the barriers and opportunity cost of voting. Together, these groups of solutions would be able to comprehensively improve voter turnout.


Public Finance of Electoral Campaigns



One ingenious solution proposed by Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres, American constitutional law scholars, is a system to allow egalitarian public finance of electoral campaigns. Seeing the rampant private funding of political parties in the United States leading to widespread belief that the system is rigged by the “rich elite”, he proposes a radical solution. He argues that each citizen should be given what he terms a patriot card, with 50 USD each, which will total 11 billion USD for the US electorate. The cards would be used to finance the political process. Individual candidates and political parties could accept funds from the cards, but only if they do not accept the funds from anywhere else. Ackerman argues this will work due to two reasons - a) that funds from the democracy cards would be sufficiently high to swamp other sources of funding, especially as private funding and funding from the cards cannot be mixed; and b) that private funding could become itself a potent political weapon to deploy, meaning a party could be under attack for receiving money from private sources. The beneficial effects are threefold. Firstly and most importantly, it restores the egalitarian process of funding which has been overlooked. In addition to one-person-one-vote, one-person-one-card as a method of funding elections means everyone would be able to influence elections to the same degree. The second benefit is how this unique mechanism removes private money from the political peocess without ceding control of allocation of political financing to the state. Any alternative method of state distribution of political resources would signal a conflict of interest, as the incumbent party would have the incentive to stay on for another term; this solution circumvents that by giving money and power directly to the people. Third, it encourages wider citizen participation. The perception of money being the primary factor for the outcome of an election will disappear, removing the largest reason why people are disengaged.


Democratic Citizens' Assembly



Another ingenious solution is a randomly selected Citizens’ Assembly, which operates on the principle of direct democracy. Random citizens are chosen and paid to hear proposals on issues by different groups, and later vote on those issues. They listen to the arguments for and against the proposal by multiple stakeholders, and are given fair and impartial information of the likely consequences of the proposal by experts. Throughout the process, there would be government and NGO oversight to ensure a high quality of information and the utmost impartiality. The Citizens’ Assembly would be used for county-wide measures where the impacts are felt mostly by the local community, such as a proposal for building a shopping mall. The decisions made by these assemblies would be final. A criticism levelled against this proposal is how the average citizen cannot process large amounts of information, or that the quality of information given might not be high. However, this can be resolved by experts and moderators. In fact, an experiment by James S. Fishkin demonstrates that a Citizens’ Assembly can generate decisions based on reasoned evaluation of information. With that in mind, there are three broad benefits of adopting this solution. First, it involves ordinary citizens instead of professional politicians, which minimises the principal-agent problem. Politicians’ main incentives are to win another term or advance up the political ladder, which runs contrary to the incentives of citizens on the ground. Second, quotas can be implemented to ensure the assemblies to be broadly representative of the ethnicities, genders and backgrounds of participating individuals. This is in contrast to politicians, which usually come from similar educational and family backgrounds. Third, it is more representative of the people’s will. The sample of participants will likely reflect how the public generally view the proposal, which is more representative than an elected politician who might have to juggle different interests. However, the largest impact of this policy would be to increase voter turnout. By often involving the public in direct decision-making, by making citizens generally more well-informed on contentious politcal issues and by cultivating an atmosphere of keen political awarenses, many more people are likely to be engaged with and participate in the democratic system. Hence a randomly selected Citizens’ Assembly would likely increase voter turnout.


The two systems outlined above are part of the first category of solutions - to radically improve the democratic system as a whole to engender renewed faith and engagement in the political system. Through largely removing private fundings of campaigns and giving the power and money to the people, and through active involvement with randomly selected Citizens’ Assemblies, voter confidence and turnout are likely to increase.


Decreasing the Cost of Voting in Elections



The second category of solutions aim to radically decrease the cost to voting in elections. The first solution is simple - to increase the amount of voting booths across the country. During the 2016 US presidential election, the county Maricopa in Arizona had a disgraceful 1 voting booth per 20,000 people. Some voters even had to wait for five or more hours to cast their vote. By massively increasing the number of voting booths across the country, which reduces the distance people travel and the time they spend, it will incentivise more people to turn up to the voting booth. The second solution is also reasonably straightforward - to make voter registration easier. For example, the Canadian system allows voter registration to be updated through tax forms, instead of new voter registration having to be done every time one moves in the US. Another successful example is the UK, where homeless people can register to vote with the address of a day centre, night shelter, friend’s home or even an outdoors space. This greatly increases the number of people registered to vote, removing yet another barrier to voting. The third solution is to incorporate more technology at the polling booths to make it more efficient. This includes electronically identifying individual voters, using vote-counting machines instead of counting and recounting by hand, and having a live system to constantly update the amount of votes for each candidate. The use of technology will increase the efficiency on voting day, decreasing the amount of time voters have to wait in line, as well as the personnel needed to man the station, opening up human resources for more polling booths. The fourth solution is to make the act of voting itself more convenient. Sending votes by mail is a method already adopted by many countries for its foreign nationals, such as the US and Australia. If this were to be expanded to local citizens, as it is done in Canada, it would eliminate the time spent on travelling to a voting booth, waiting in line to cast a ballot, then travelling back, which would take up a quarter of your day. Citizens would be far more willing to fill out a form, provide identification documents and vote on a sheet of paper at home.


The four solutions within the second category would greatly decrease the opportunity cost to voting, which is a significant barrier explaining why people do not turn up to vote. The opportunity cost argument also explains why a rainy day, for example, can affect election outcomes more than the amount of money spent on a campaign, and why people in areas near polling booths are substantially more likely to vote than people far away from them (although the logic might run the other way as well). As people have to expend much less time and resources on casting their ballot, this would be instrumental in increasing voter turnout at elections.


Conclusion


In conclusion, the principal reasons for a low voter turnout is the lack of trust in the democratic system and the high opportunity cost to voting. A radical upheaval in the system through an egalitarian financing of political campaigns with democracy cards and a randomly selected Citizens’ Assembly to make county-wide decisions would solve the first problem; and increasing the number of voting booths, making voter registration easier, incorporating more efficient technology in the voting process and allowing votes to be sent in by mail would solve the second. Voter turnout can be substantially increased through these ingenious solutions, making our democracy more representative, more vibrant and more inclusive.

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©2020 by Sharon Chau