A thriving democracy depends on having engaged citizens.
But what if many of them don’t even bother to vote? About 61 percent of eligible Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election; only about 50 percent voted in the 2018 midterms.
And in the 2015 governor’s race in the commonwealth, about 31 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. That means even fewer people picked the actual winners.
“About 16 percent of eligible Kentuckians chose our elected officials statewide,” says voting rights expert Joshua Douglas. “That’s just not good enough.”
Douglas is a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law and author of the new book “Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting.” He appeared on KET’s Connections to share ways to increase voter participation in America.
When people talk about voting issues, the discussion often focuses on concerns about voter suppression or election fraud. But from his research into these issues, Douglas says the news isn’t all doom and gloom.
“There’s a lot of good news on the ground in communities all over the country, where people are working to promote positive reforms,” he says, “ways to make it easier to participate and more inclusive and bring more people into the political process.”
In his book, Douglas highlights a range of efforts to expand voting rights and voter participation.
“Change is possible and it’s not from entrenched politicians or the elite, it’s from everyday Americans,” says the professor. “All of us can do it in our communities, it’s already happening, and so I hope people are inspired by those stories.”
Second Chances for Felons
Kentucky and Iowa are the worst states in the nation for felon disenfranchisement, according to Douglas. But the testimony of a Covington man helped start to turn that tide in the commonwealth.
West Powell was 18 years old when he received a felony conviction for stealing a car radio from a salvage yard. Douglas says after Powell served his time, he got his life back on track, starting a business and a family.
In many states, Powell’s voting rights would have been restored after he completed his sentence for such a crime. But not in Kentucky.
Nearly 30 years later, Powell got to tell the story of his conviction and his successful reentry into society to state lawmakers who were debating a felony expungement measure. His testimony helped inspire legislators to pass a bipartisan bill in 2016 that gives certain low-level, non-violent felony offenders a process to have their criminal records expunged and their voting rights restored.
“Kentucky’s worst-in-the-country felony disenfranchisement law got a little bit better because someone like West Powell was willing to speak up,” he says.
Building the Youth Vote
Douglas says one of the best ways to foster politically active adults is to get them engaged when they are young. He says civics education in K-12 schools should be revamped to move beyond the fundamentals of government and passing legislation. He says some social studies classes are now learning something called “action civics,” which encourages students to work on a problem in their communities.
For example, Douglas tells of a class at a Washington, D.C., magnet school that successfully lobbied for free public transportation for students as a way to reduce tardiness.
“Those kids are never going to forget the importance of engaging in one’s democracy,” he says.
Other municipalities have coupled an emphasis on civics with a lower voting age. Douglas says several Maryland communities as well as Berkeley, Calif., have lowed the voting age to 16 for some local elections. Early results show that those younger teens turn out at twice the rate of 18- to 24-year olds.
“So if we can get 16- and 17-year olds to vote in the local elections on issues that really matter to them,” says Douglas, “[like] school board or local policies regarding climate change, then they have a much greater likelihood of becoming habitual voters.”
But Douglas says Kentucky statutes prevent cities and counties from adopting their own election laws, so local teen voting experiments like the ones in Maryland and California couldn’t happen here.
Other Voting Reforms
The ability to register to vote when you get a driver’s license has been available in most states for years. Now 17 states will automatically register you to vote when you apply for a new license or renew an existing one. Douglas contends that makes it easier for states to maintain accurate voter rolls by eliminating people who have moved to another jurisdiction or have died.
Other states are exploring ways to make the voting process more convenient. Some offer longer voting hours, or the opportunity to vote on the Saturday before Election Day. Other places allow early voting in person or by mail before Election Day without an excuse. Douglas says that doesn’t result in dramatically higher turnout, but it does make easier for those already inclined to vote.
Turnout is higher, through, among locales using voting centers and allowing vote by mail, according to the professor. Colorado pioneered the idea of voting centers, whereby a person can vote at any specially designated location in their county, whether it’s in their home precinct or not. Once the voter checks in, they receive a ballot that contains the contests for their home address. Douglas says all the voting centers are electronically connected so a person can only vote once. He says this gives working people more flexibility where they cast their ballots. Despite the upfront costs, Douglas says voting centers would ultimately save taxpayer dollars.
“You no longer have to have multiple precincts, you no longer have to pay as many poll workers, so actually it leads to reduced costs in the long term and higher turnout as people understand the convenience of the vote-center model,” he says.
Four states now offer a vote-by-mail option (also called vote at home) in which every voter automatically receives a ballot in the mail, whether they request it or not.
“So they have the time to research issues,” Douglas says, “and then either mail the ballot in or drop it off at a secure drop box. That’s a form of early voting that actually costs less and the voters love it.”
Reforms Seen by Some as a ‘Power Grab’
Opponents of such voting reforms fear they could benefit one party over another or lead to greater voter fraud. In January, Congressional Democrats proposed legislation to regulate campaign finance, end partisan gerrymandering, mandate national automatic voter registration, make Election Day a holiday for federal employees, and other reforms.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) responded by calling the legislation a “power grab” that should be titled the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.”
Douglas contends voter fraud is vastly overstated, and usually only occurs in local elections on the rare occasions that it does happen. As for politicians who fear voting reforms might advantage their opponents, Douglas says those candidates should focus on earning the votes of people who are new to the process.
“I don’t think we should think about these types of reforms with respect to the political implications,” he says. “Let the best ideas and the best candidates win.”
Douglas concedes not all reforms will be implemented, especially something as dramatic as the mandatory voting law that Australia has. (Failure to cast a ballot there results in a $20 fine.)
“I don’t think we need to implement something like that,” he says, “but if we adopt many or all of the reforms that are already working in places around the country, I think we can get to much higher voter participation and a democracy that we’ll really be proud of.”
If Kentucky can implement even a few of these reforms, Douglas says the commonwealth will foster a larger, more engaged electorate in the years ahead.