Historically low turnout. Last minute changes to voter ID laws. Reductions to early voting just before voters should have been able to cast a ballot. 2014 was a watershed year for restrictive voting laws and court battles that caused confusion for voters and certainly did not drive them to vote. We cannot precisely calculate the impact these changes had on voters but the potential negative impact cannot be swept under the rug. One thing is certain: 2015 must be a year for progressive electoral reform.
The story in the wake of the 2014 midterm election was the historically low turnout nationwide. Yet, in just two years, the country will experience a presidential election, which no doubt will garner massive interest and result in much higher voter turnout rates. If states continue to turn a blind eye to the adverse effects of restrictive voting laws currently being implemented across the country, many more voters will bear the brunt of these, and potentially other, harmful changes in the 2016 presidential election. Do we really want to see a continuing trend toward less participation in voting, undermining the very essence of our democracy?
2015 should be a year of opportunity. State and local elected officials must focus on ways to engage more Americans in the electoral process and open access to the ballot, rather than discouraging eligible Americans from voting. Where state elected officials are unwilling to pass sweeping, pro-voter changes, local elected officials and boards of elections can be conduits for change by using their offices to promote registration activities and broad voter education efforts. Cities and counties could also enact changes such as requiring landlords to provide voter registration forms and instructions to new tenants. Local reforms can act as pilots and provide evidence to support broader changes. In turn, robust civic engagement and participation can yield greater confidence in government and elected officials, something that has also been lacking in recent years.
There are specific, straightforward reforms that are popular with voters and election officials to implement during the 2015 state legislative sessions, including online voter registration, expanded opportunities for early voting, improved poll worker recruitment and training, and same day registration. Each reform has been implemented to some degree in various states, and each has resulted in benefits both for voters and election administrators alike.
Integral to the goal of election administration reform is increasing flexibility for voters. Reforms like online voter registration, early voting, and same day registration all achieve this. In addition to being hugely convenient, online voter registration results in tremendous cost savings. For example, in Washington State, an online voter registration application costs about $.45, whereas a paper registration costs $1.55. To date, twenty states have implemented online voter registration, and four others have passed legislation authorizing it and are in the implementation process. Expanding early voting options and times gives voters more opportunities to vote and increases the convenience of the voting process. Thirty-three states and D.C. have already adopted some form of no-excuse absentee or early voting, like weekend and extended evening hours to accommodate voters' varying schedules. Same day registration, also known as Election Day registration, provides voters an opportunity to both register to vote and cast a ballot in one visit to their elections office or polling place and is the ultimate "fail-safe" if there is an administrative snafu inadvertently eliminating eligible voters from the rolls. Ten states plus D.C. already offer same day voter registration, and after testing a pilot program during the 2014 election, Illinois has also passed legislation to implement same day registration.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of election administration, but essential to the voting experience is the role of poll workers. Mistakes by poll workers can often lead to an improperly cast ballot or provisional ballot that ultimately will not count. Moving forward, states must be proactive in recruiting poll workers from diverse backgrounds to better reflect the voters they are assisting -- including high school and college-aged poll workers, those who are proficient in other languages, and poll workers who are familiar with technology to assist with set-up and operation of voting machines. Recruitment of new poll workers is essential, but these poll workers must also be well-trained and skilled to handle a wide variety of problems voters may encounter on Election Day. State elections officials should explore ways to better train poll workers so they are equipped to handle the challenges and pressures of Election Day.
Rather than playing partisan politics with the ballot box, state legislators and local elected officials should seek to improve the electoral process and access to the ballot in 2015. This is an important opportunity to turn the tide from 2014 and its historically low turnout and ensure voters' confidence in the process is restored in advance of the 2016 presidential election. After all, politicians should not be choosing their voters; voters should be choosing their politicians.
Archita Taylor, Staff Attorney at the Fair Elections Legal Network, contributed to this article and authored FELN's Post Election 2014 paper.