Stateline Story

Low Voter Turnout Spurs Efforts To Open Process

As fewer and fewer voting-age Americans opt to cast ballots, the states and the federal government are increasingly experimenting with new ways to open the process to more people.

In the past few years, more and more states have loosened their election rules. They have made it easier to register and are allowing early voting and in Oregon's case, mail-in balloting.

"States are eager to boost turnout or at least to stop the steady erosion in turnout," said Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "States are taking numerous steps to try to reduce barriers to voting."

The experimentation is likely to continue. So far, nothing has worked to reverse a trend in declining participation begun in 1960.

This year, experts predict that despite a down-to-the-wire presidential race, no more than 49 percent of eligible voters will cast ballots on November 7. That's the same rate as in 1996, when an incumbent president maintained a solid lead over his challenger in the weeks leading up to the election.

This year, Oregon will become the first state to conduct a general election almost entirely by mail. The state has already mailed forms and voting guides to registered voters, who must return their ballots by 8 p.m. on November 7. Oregonians may be thankful for the extra time. There are 26 initiatives on the ballot there. The state will still maintain polling sites in some locations for those who choose to vote the old-fashioned way.

In Nevada's Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, 22 percent of registered voters have already cast ballots, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. Clark County voters are among those in about 14 states nationwide that can go to the polls well before election day. In some states, such as Wisconsin, voters can cast votes early at their county clerk's office. Other jurisdictions, including Denver and Las Vegas, have opened polling places in supermarkets and shopping malls. As in Oregon, the traditionalists and the undecideds in these states can still visit a polling place on election day.

Wisconsin this year also joined a growing list of states that have instituted something called no-fault absentee voting. Like a no-fault divorce, a no-fault vote means residents need not explain why they can't make it to a polling place on election day. For voters who really are leaving town or have left voting until the last minute, the state will send ballots by fax or e-mail.

Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming allow voters to register on election day at their polling place, removing a huge hurdle for those who decide to cast a ballot at the last minute. North Dakota does not require voters to register.

Voter registration requirements, which usually mean voters must present proof of residency, age and identity, are designed to prevent fraud.

Congress went a long way toward boosting the number of registered voters when it passed the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 -- the so-called Motor-Voter law. According to the Federal Election Commission, Motor-Voter helped raise registration to a record level in the last presidential election year.

Because of the law, drivers over 17 are automatically registered to vote when they apply for a license. Registration applications are also available in many different states offices.

Most states now also give voters the option of using the national, uniform voter registration form.

Although Arizona held the first official Internet vote in March, no state has allowed residents to vote over the Internet in this election. While questions about security and fraud still make such an idea impractical on a large scale, the Arizona experiment -- in which voters in the Democratic primary could cast ballots over the Internet -- doubled turnout.

One expert, Curtis Gans, of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a non-partisan research organization, argues that almost all of these experiments will backfire.

"I think some of them will hurt turnout. Some of them will hurt others aspects of the political system. Some of them are dangerous. I really think Internet voting is dangerous."

Those seeking to explain low voter turnout and to reverse it, he says, must look elsewhere.

"The process at this point is not very onerous. We have been opening up the process for the better part of three decades."

Many states, however, maintain barriers to voter participation. Twenty-eight still require voters to register at least four weeks before an election.

About 14 states have laws barring convicted felons from voting, even though they have completed their sentences. According to the Sentencing Project, these laws meant 1.4 million Americans could not vote in 1998. In some of these states, as many as 40 percent of African-American men do not have the right to vote, the Project has reported.