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Science of elections: The problem with turnout

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Published: 23rd Jan 2012 14:32:22

South Carolina saw a record turnout for its Republican primary on Saturday. Could weekend voting be the answer to the national turnout problem?

Katie Jackson wanted to do her democratic duty.

On Saturday, a few months after turning 18, she went with her parents to Springdale, South Carolina, to cast her ballot in the Republican primary.

She waited while her parents' names were found on printed lists of registered voters, handed over her state-issued driving license and waited for the poll manager to hand her a blue voter ID slip.

But Katie's name was not on the list. As her parents cast their votes, she waited a little longer. The poll managers gave up looking. Were they sure this was her precinct?

Confused, Melanie and Frankie Jackson drove Katie to Lexington, a neighbouring county, where they lived until recently. No luck.

Somewhere between the Department of Motor Vehicles - where Katie registered to vote - and the various local polling venues, the paper trail had gone cold.

"I'm frustrated," says Katie, who studies at a local university. "If you don't vote you don't get to have a say, you can't complain if things aren't right."

"This seems so slow in comparison to how we do things at college."

Lost millions

New technology made it seem old-fashioned to rely on paper and pen for something as important as an election, says Mrs Jackson.

"They could have iPads here that would have all the information available and could confirm that Katie was eligible to vote."

There are 50 million American citizens who aren't registered to vote. And there are 20 million names on registration lists that ought not to be there.”

Around South Carolina's state capitol, Columbia, young voters said they felt unable to vote because the system was getting in their way.

JP Shorter, 23, is registered in the coastal city of Charleston, but studies in Columbia and he found he was ineligible to vote there.

"It's inconvenient for me to vote because I don't know how to register for an absentee ballot," he says.

For veteran election-watcher Curtis Gans, who runs the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, this disenfranchisement is a major problem.

"There are 50 million American citizens who aren't registered to vote," he says. "And there are 20 million names on registration lists that ought not to be there."

Alaska, Illinois, and South Dakota have more voters on their lists than there are citizens eligible to vote living there, Mr Gans has told Congress.

And of 172 recognised democracies, the US is ranked 139th in voter participation, he says.

An inexact science

There are more reasons for poor turnout in US elections than simply bad book-keeping, but there is less agreement on how to fix it.

Barack Obama's 2008 victory saw a spike in turnout but fell short of a record, and the final national figure was just 63%.

That was the highest since the famed Kennedy-Nixon battle of 1960, and higher than any other presidential election since 1920.

Turnout stayed below 60% all the way from 1972, when Richard Nixon won his second term, until 2004, when John Kerry narrowly failed to unseat George W Bush. At its nadir in 1996, Bill Clinton was re-elected on a turnout of just 51.4%

By contrast, turnout in much of Europe regularly tops 70%. In Australia, which enforces compulsory voting, turnout in the 2010 election was 93%.

Jacob Soboroff of the Why Tuesday? campaign says the requirement that the US holds federal elections on a Tuesday holds turnout back.

The Tuesday rule was put in place in the 19th Century when the nation was a largely agricultural one. Times have changed, but elections have not, he says.

"A lot of local election officials are comfortable with the status quo. But is that a good enough excuse not to do things differently? We think no."

Backers of weekend elections say the convenience of voting on a non-work day would help increase voter participation and ease congestion at polling places.

But a recent report on the proposal found resistance among poll organisers and concerns over increased costs and the availability of suitable premises.

Mr Soboroff was disappointed in the findings.

"There is a far higher cost to the nation of having perennially low turnout than the monetary cost of having weekend elections," he says.

Racial divide

In South Carolina, election officials were crowing as a record 603,014 ballots were cast in their primary, confounding fears that turnout's most notorious enemy - heavy rain - would keep people at home.

In the end some 21% of all the state's eligible voters turned out, comfortably beating the pre-poll estimate of 450,000.

The state Republican party founded its primary in 1980 and fixed it on a Saturday with the stated aim of boosting turnout.

Come November's presidential election, though, state observers say things will be a little different. South Carolina is one of 15 states that did not allow either early voting or "no-excuse" absentee voting in the 2010 midterm elections - two innovations many see as encouraging wider access to the vote.

In addition, it is one of 34 states to have tried to introduce a law requiring voters to present photo ID to cast a federal ballot.

Laura Wolliver, professor of political science at South Carolina University, says state Republicans may prefer higher turnout in their primary than in the general election.

"Because this primary influences who the state eventually chooses in November, they will always announce huge turnout, and then a few months later they will be conflicted" about increasing access.

The debate over photo ID is emblematic of the turnout debate, says Don Fowler, a former Democratic national chairman who hails from the staunchly Republican state.

"I have no doubt - none - that the [photo ID] law was introduced and adopted in an effort to restrict the African-American vote and that of poor and under-educated whites," most of whom would vote Democrat, he says.

"It's clear that those people have fewer of the attachments of life, including driver's licences and identity documents."

Republicans dismiss that argument, pointing to the growing requirement to show or scan ID to access everyday services.

"I had to wait in line and show ID to some medicine at Christmas," says Chad Connelly, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party.

"It seems common sense to me that you would just prove you are an American."

Motivational problem

There are competing visions for boosting voter turnout in US. Some back weekend voting, some want wider access to early and "no excuse" absentee votes.

The problems with American turnout are not procedural, they are motivational”

Election expert Curtis Gans, who proposes a nationwide biometric voter ID card, sees it differently.

"The problems with American turnout are not procedural, they are motivational," he says.

Don Fowler agrees, citing the closeness of the race and the interest in the candidates as key motivators.

On South Carolina's election day, though, some suggested it was a simple matter of bringing the technology up to date.

"Personally, I would love for us to have computers," says Billie McClam, running a polling precinct for 3,000 registered voters that boasts electronic voting machines but paper voting lists.

In downtown Columbia, Steve Crabb, 30, says even the lure of weekend voting had failed to draw him to the polls.

"I didn't vote today, I went kayaking instead. I'd like to register by text message, set up a PIN number, and vote American Idol-style.

"I promise I'd only vote once, though."

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BBC News, 2012. Science of elections: The problem with turnout [Online] (Updated 23rd Jan 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/220115/Science-of-elections-The-problem-with-turnout [Accessed 23rd Jul 2014]

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