The 2016 election has already been riddled with complaints of long lines at the polls, with voters in North Carolina, Ohio, and other states reporting big problems casting ballots.
4,000 people are waiting in line to vote in Cincinnati right now. This is how long the line is. pic.twitter.com/bilpnGsrzl— Saahil Desai (@Saahil_Desai) November 6, 2016
But as bad as this looks, Ohioans and North Carolinians are lucky in one way: At least they can vote early. In 13 states, you either need an excuse to vote early — such as a business trip conflicting with Election Day — or you simply can’t vote early at all.
This is just one of the many ways America’s voting system is antiquated. From holding Election Day on a Tuesday to requiring that people file extra paperwork just to register to vote, there is a lot in American elections that feels outdated.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Here are nine changes that could make voting easier or otherwise better on Election Day or before:
- Change Election Day: Election Day was officially set in 1845, back when a Tuesday in early November was a convenient time for farmers to vote. Since then, a lot has changed — most importantly, Tuesday is now in the middle of the workweek for the typical 9-to-5 employee. Changing Election Day to a weekend or even extending it to an entire week could help make voting easier for people.
- Make Election Day a holiday: Short of actually changing Election Day, the US could make Election Day a national holiday so it doesn’t conflict with work responsibilities. The research is mixed on whether this and other changes to Election Day would affect voter turnout, but it’s worth considering.
- Allow or expand early voting: 34 states already allow no-excuse early voting, although some limit it to one or two weeks, weekdays, and, worse, 9-to-5 office hours. But a few states have proven that it’s possible to offer much more expansive voting windows — Minnesota, for example, allows early voting 46 days before Election Day. Others, like Maine and Iowa, allow voting as soon as ballots are available — which can be as early as up to 45 days before Election Day. The research is conflicted on whether this would increase voter turnout, but it would at least open up more chances for people to vote.
- Move some or all voting to mail: Colorado, Oregon, and Washington only vote by mail, setting up systems that let people pick up or print out ballots and simply mail them in to their local voting office. There are some concerns to only allowing mail-in voting, including ballots getting lost in the mail and potentially making it easier for family members or peers to coerce a person into voting a certain way. But mail-in voting is one way that states can potentially expand voting time on the cheap, since they no longer need to hire staff to supervise polling booths.
- Automatically register people to vote, or register everyone: To this day, all but one state (North Dakota) require people to register to vote. This just adds another hurdle to voting. States could take steps to automatically register people to vote, as Oregon did. Or maybe they could do away with registration, like North Dakota has — allowing people to instead prove on Election Day that they live in the state with a state-issued ID or other identification documents.
- Relax strict voter ID laws: Over the past few years, more states have adopted strict laws that limit what IDs someone needs to show on Election Day to vote. For example, they might allow a government-issued photo ID as proof to vote, but ban a student ID or bank statement. This is supposedly to combat voter impersonation, but this kind of voter fraud is very rare anyway — between 2000 and 2014, there were only 35 credible allegations of voter impersonation, while more than 1 billion ballots were cast. So maybe these laws can be relaxed to allow more forms of ID or not require an ID at all.
- Make voting easier for people with disabilities: People with disabilities can face huge challenges when they head to the voting booth, from difficulty reading a ballot to a lack of wheelchair-accessible ramps. According to a 2013 study by Rutgers University associate professor Lisa Schur, 3 million more people would turn out to vote if Americans with disabilities voted at the same rate as otherwise similar people without disabilities. But Schur reported that previous research has found that only 27 percent of polling places in 2008 posed no potential impediments to people with disabilities. (Liz Plank made a great video for Vox covering all of these issues.)
- Make voting compulsory: This wouldn’t necessarily make voting easier, but it could drive a lot more people to the polls. As Dylan Matthews wrote for Vox, making voting compulsory is one of the few ideas that really is proven to increase voter turnout. And that would make American government more representative of all the people that it’s supposed to work for.
- Online voting: This would be the most convenient form of voting possible for anyone with a computer, tablet, or phone connected to the internet. But there are enormous security risks: At a time when hackers are managing to break into all sorts of places — and even shutting down the internet for huge swaths of the country — it’s extremely risky. Before online voting is ever implemented, these risks will need to be figured out. (And maybe it’ll never be possible — Suzanne Mello-Stark argued for Vox that elections will likely continue to need a paper trail to remain credible.)
Beyond possibly improving the voting experience, these changes could help address a serious problem: The US has relatively low voter turnout for a wealthy nation — meaning much of the population isn’t having its voice heard. About 53.6 percent of the US voting-age population turned out to vote in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. Other countries reported much higher shares of their voting-age population turning out to vote in recent elections: 87.2 percent in Belgium, 66 percent in Germany, and 61.1 percent in the UK.
Some of the difference is explained by differences in policies. Unlike most wealthy countries, the US doesn’t automatically register voters (as Germany and Sweden do), and it doesn’t seek them out aggressively to push them to register (as the UK does). And the US definitely doesn’t go as far as Belgium or Australia, which make voting compulsory.
All of that, of course, falls on top of more typical voting issues, such as a lack of access to transportation to get to a polling place on Election Day or being unable to take time away from work or family life to vote.
The policy changes listed above could alleviate these issues. Some of them, particularly the expansion of voting days, cost more money. It’s going to be up to lawmakers and their constituents in different jurisdictions to decide what the right balance of costs and access to voting is.
But whatever they decide, it’s clear that voting doesn’t have to be as difficult as it is today.