Excuses, excuses when it comes to not voting
For decades, politicians and political scientists have been lamenting the poor voter turnout in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States.
Even though there was a seemingly new burst of energy among the electorate earlier this year, it did not translate into many more votes on primary elections day, May 15. Fewer than 20 percent of the registered voters bothered to exercise their right to cast a ballot, but even this number was slightly higher than recorded during the last midterm primaries in 2014.
There has been much hand-wringing trying to figure out how to get Americans to take more interest in elections, but voter turnout has not improved, and we lag way behind some other countries.
There have been attempts to change the nationwide Election Day, which now is the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Each state sets its own primary date. In Pennsylvania, it falls in either April or May, making the election season much longer than in some other states.
In New York state, for example, the primaries are held a week after Labor Day in September, so there are only two months between the primaries and general elections, rather than six or seven months as here in our state.
The 2016 presidential election lasted nearly 600 days. By contrast, Canada’s last election lasted just 11 weeks; in Japan, it was 12 days.
Many believe that turnout would be much greater if elections were held on the weekend rather than on a Tuesday. There have been periodic efforts to make that change, but none has been successful.
The last big push came last year when two Democrats — U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York) and U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island) — co-sponsored The Weekend Voting Act, which would have moved presidential and congressional elections to the first full weekend of November and have them last for two full days. State and local elections would not be included; dates for these elections would be left to the states.
Congress instituted the Uniform Voting Act in 1845. Although there are varying theories as to why a Tuesday was chosen, the most prevalent one is that in the mid-19th century, the country was mainly an agrarian society, so farmers needed a full day to travel by horse-drawn vehicle to the county seat to vote.
A Tuesday, legislators reasoned, did not interfere with the biblical Sabbath or with market day, which was on Wednesdays in many communities.
Of course, now that we are no longer primarily an agrarian society, and Tuesday is a normal work day for most prospective voters, the feeling is that this too-long-kept tradition decreases voter turnout.
Saturday and Sunday are widely recognized as days off, and countries with higher turnout than ours hold their elections on weekends, including Finland, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Iceland.
A lot of different ideas have been advanced as to how to improve voter turnout. In addition to moving Election Day to a weekend, some have suggested that it become a national holiday. There was a proposal to merge Election Day with Veterans Day (Nov. 11) as a federal holiday. In so doing, this was seen as a way to honor veterans by exercising our right to vote, one of the sacred freedoms that many veterans gave their lives for.
Others suggest that voting be made mandatory; those who do not vote without a bona fide reason would be subject to a fine and required to do community service.
A Pew Research Center survey last month showed that nearly 56 percent of registered voters cast ballots in 2016, slightly more than in 2012 but less than the record of 70 percent in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected to his first term as president.
The voting record in our country puts us behind most of the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 26th out of 32, the Pew survey showed.
Belgium, for example, had voter turnout rates of between 83 percent and 95 percent in every election in the past 40 years, but one important factor for these startling numbers might be that it is one of 24 countries that have a form of compulsory voting.
The way voters are registered can have an impact on turnout, too. Although registration is much easier for Pennsylvanians now that online registration is offered, the onus is still on the individual.
In a growing number of countries, individuals become automatically registered when they attain the required age to vote.
Some countries give voters the option to check off “none of the above” if they don’t like any of the ballot candidates. It would have been interesting to have seen how many would have checked such a box if it were available in 2016 when there was such a distaste for both presidential candidates.
By Bruce Frassinelli | firstname.lastname@example.org