Variations On A Theme - Politics: Q&A With Victoria Bassetti

Electoral Dysfunction goes a long way toward explaining why U.S. election practices are so confusing. It’s a fascinating discussion of both big-picture issues and minutiae.

What is, “Variations on a Theme?”

The Independent is launching a new feature this month called “Variations on a Theme.” We will occasionally choose a theme and suggest works related to it. We hope you enjoy the results.

Because we’re based in Washington and this is a presidential election year, we begin with a political theme. The books we selected address some of the issues of this electoral campaign.

Q&A – Victoria Bassetti, author of Electoral Dysfunction

Interview by Randy Cepuch

According to a U.S. Census Bureau summary recently published in Parade magazine, voter turnout in the 2008 presidential election ranged from a high of 75 percent of all eligible voters in Minnesota to a low of 53.1 percent in Utah. What is it about those two states? And why did turnout exceed two-thirds only in two dozen other states?

There is substantial variation in voter turnout on a state-by-state basis. But using Census Bureau data for gauging voter turnout is actually useful for demonstrating a different point. The Census Bureau determines voter turnout based on a questionnaire. In short, it asks people in each state whether they voted. Since voting is perceived to be a “good” behavior, people responding to the question tend to “overreport” whether they voted, that is, they lie.

Social and political scientists have spent decades trying to understand variations in voter turnout. There are literally hundreds of variables affecting why people vote or do not — socioeconomic, institutional, social, attitudinal. But a few things come through:

• Institutionally, states that make it easy to vote have higher turnout. Minnesota has Election Day voter registration. It uses uniform ballot design and machines. It has a voter’s bill of rights that gives people the right to be absent from work to vote without losing pay. It also has a civic culture of engagement and participation.

• Utah, in contrast, requires voter identification at the polls. It closes out voter registration on October 22 — two weeks before Election Day.

But there may be many other factors at work. States that have competitive races tend to have higher turnout. States that are dominated by a single political party have lower turnout. Swing states, where there is substantial advertising and get-out-the-vote initiatives, have higher turnout. States that have frequent elections suffer lower turnout due to voter fatigue. States that make absentee and early voting easy have higher turnout.

In short, there is no single factor that anyone can point to. But voters in each state can and should assess their state’s laws to see whether they live in a voting-friendly or -unfriendly state. Rock the Vote has created a checklist and score card of many states that provides a useful starting point for doing this. It is included in the afterword of the book.

Which states have the best election systems, in terms of fairness, convenience and reliability, and why don’t other states follow their lead?

I tend to admire Washington State, which exclusively uses mail ballots. I admire Wisconsin for trying to take partisanship out of voting administration. Iowa and Delaware have done a good job encouraging young people to vote. Maricopa County in Arizona has really stepped up to make voter registration easy.

It’s hard to tell why other states don’t follow the good examples set by some states and local governments. In some states, unfortunately, voting and election administration is hopelessly wrapped up in partisan disputes. The two main political parties are bitterly divided, accusing one another of either fraud or suppression. The situation in Ohio and in Florida seems to be particularly intractable. Other states lack the resources and political will to spend what needs to be spent to make voting work well. Voting administration in tough times tends to lose budget battles.

Why did U.S. voter turnout fall from 80 percent in 1900 to less than 50 percent just two decades later, and why has it never come close to rebounding?

The cause of the sharp decline in voter turnout in the 20th century is one of the great debates among social and political scientists. A few things probably help explain it. First, voting was bureaucratized in the early 20th century. Voter registration schemes were implemented. Literacy and poll tests were implemented, and not just in the South. Those systems were in use throughout the nation as entrenched political interests throughout the nation sought to use them to control the electorate.

Second, even as those institutional trends were picking up momentum, American civic life was changing. Party organizations were critical in the 19th century to driving voter turnout, but after the turn of the century, local political parties and clubs were losing their relevance for everyday Americans. American society and its economy were in the midst of enormous change, but the parties did not adapt. Other civic institutions became more important.

To increase participation, should the United States borrow an idea from Australia and make voting mandatory?

There seems to be little question that mandatory voting would increase turnout and would make the electorate more representative of our society as a whole. Nonvoters often tend to be among the more moderate. They are disengaged and turned off by politics and leave voting to the polarized. Some people argue that it would help combat the impact of money in politics, since so much of the money in campaigns today is actually aimed at depressing turnout.

But I wonder whether mandatory voting would work in America. To begin with, I am doubtful about the idea of mandating civic virtue and participation. And the prospect of fining poor people, who may lack easy transportation or time off from working, for not voting is distasteful. But more to the point, I doubt that our partisan political system would ever adopt such a proposal.

What might be the best way to register voters? Has “motor voter” registration worked?

There are many ways to register voters, and almost every state in the nation seems to have picked the worst. In almost every other industrialized nation, the government compiles and maintains the rolls of eligible voters. They do not impose the burden of registration on voters themselves. For example, in Canada, where more than 90 percent of the electorate is registered, the government scans a broad array of data sources (tax rolls, school registries, health insurance forms) and creates a list of eligible voters. Anyone who is not on the rolls on Election Day is given the opportunity to register then and there. The Canadian government continuously works on maintaining the rolls. That nation’s election system is also nonpartisan. I think we should look to the North for a good voter registration system.

In the meantime, though, the United States struggles along with its outdated systems. Some states have tried to fix the problem. Maine and Minnesota allow Election Day voter registration. North Dakota does not require voter registration. Maricopa County in Arizona has a great online voter registration system.

“Motor voter” registration has been an enormous success in the United States. Today, less than 15 percent of voter registrations occur in traditional registration offices.

Should states use state funds to proactively supply voter IDs to all eligible residents? Or might such things as fingerprint or iris identification be feasible?

I don’t think states should waste their money on voter IDs or fingerprint or iris identification. There is simply no evidence that voter impersonation is a problem that merits this sort of action. A comprehensive study of voter fraud in the United States over an 11-year period from 2000 to 2011 turned up only 10 cases of voter impersonation. I don’t see why we should be spending millions of dollars trying to fix a problem that does not exist.

Every method of voting seems to have its flaws and its critics. What are the weaknesses of the various methods used in the United States?

Today, most voting districts use one of two main voting methods: electronic voting or voting with papers fed into an optical scanner. They have similar flaws:

• First, ballot design. American election history is littered with contests that were disturbed or wrongly decided because the ballot design confused or misled voters. Most people remember the disastrous Palm Beach “butterfly ballot” of 2000. But there are other examples as well. For example, with e-voting machines (the ones like ATM machines), when two races are put on the same screen, voters often skip over the second race. With paper ballots, the design cn be haphazard and confusing and the instructions befuddling.

• Second, all machines break down. Optical scanners overheat and reject ballots. E-voting machines are computers that can have errors. These are not cases of nefarious voting fraud. It’s just fact. Machines break down and have problems. They need regular maintenance and upgrades, and not all election administration districts have the expertise or budgets to take care of them.

I personally prefer the paper ballots with optical scanners. They leave a permanent record of voter intent, which makes recounts easier, and tend to be somewhat better designed. Many of the e-voting machines were rolled out to the public without enough testing and consequently got a bad reputation. I do think that the fears of hacking and reprogramming are vastly exaggerated, and the larger problems are maintenance and ballot design.

How might voting processes change over the next decade or two? Might there be more voting by mail, via the Internet, by walking through mind-reading scanners, that sort of thing?

I like the idea of mind-reading voting machines — patent pending, trademarked. But I think we’re probably going to stick with the systems we have in place now, though I strongly suspect that we will see more and more voting by mail. And I think as soon as some of the security and authentication issues around Internet voting are sorted through, we will see that.

What are the implications of increased absentee voting?

Absentee voting (and all mail voting) raises the interesting question of how much voting is a participatory, social experience. As we increasingly turn to absentee voting, mail voting and early voting, the experience of voting in a group on the same day is disappearing. The role of Election Day as a sort of civic high holiday is fading. Although I certainly mourn that, I would be more than happy to sacrifice it for increased turnout and participation resulting from easier voting produces.

The National Popular Vote initiative wants participating states to be obligated to cast their Electoral College votes for the winner of the popular vote, so we don’t end up with a a president who didn’t receive the most votes — which has happened more than once.  Is the effort likely to succeed?

Right now the initiative is half way toward success. Nine states and jurisdictions with 134 Electoral College votes have adopted it: California, D.C., Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont and Washington. It’s always hard to predict whether these sorts of initiatives will succeed. There have been a lot of efforts to reform or abolish the Electoral College, and every one has failed. . But the National Popular Vote is pursuing a novel and creative way to alter the way we elect presidents. My feeling, however, is that it is not likely to succeed until at least one or two bulwark Republican states adopt the plan.

Would you favor any sort of basic intelligence test for voters, and if so, how could it be administered fairly?

I would never favor an intelligence test for voters and not just because there is no way to fairly create and administer one. I think democracy only works when all the people who are bound by its outcomes have a real opportunity to participate in and have a voice in our government. When people are excluded, their investment in and commitment to our society dissipates and our system ultimately disintegrates.

How can we better prepare students to become responsible voters?

I’m a big fan of two programs. One is Democracy Day, which is promoted by Rock the Vote every March 23, the day that Congress sent to the states for ratification the 26th Amendment, allowing 18-year-olds to vote. I also like Constitution Day, which is held every September 17, the day in 1787 when the Constitution was signed by the state delegates in Philadelphia.

But there is another thing schools could do. Study after study shows that parents who vote have children who vote. And parents who take their children to the polls have a big impact. I think we should actively encourage schools to let kids take Election Day morning or afternoon off with their parents.

Randy Cepuch is a chief election officer in Fairfax County, Virginia.

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