Expanding Voter Rights and Outreach

Representation through voting is one of the most important aspects of democracy, and a right that was not always guaranteed for many people in the United States. But recent efforts to expand the number of eligible voters have raised concerns about the impact of the politically inactive and uninformed. Despite such concerns, expanding eligible voters is essential to democracy and can be done through improved technology and education.

The United States has a rich history of increasing its level of democracy by expanding the number of eligible voters. But despite the ethos of government by the people and for the people, the right to representation through voting has historically been denied to many. Only white males were entitled to representation until African Americans gained the right to vote in 1870 under the Fifteenth Amendment. It would take another fifty years before women won the same right through the suffrage movement, resulting in the Nineteenth Amendment. Both of these historical events empowered huge groups of citizens, giving them the right to be heard and have their interests represented. Expansion of eligible voters continued in 1964 with the elimination of poll taxes, which had been used to disenfranchise the poor, who were often minorities. Further expansions guaranteed citizens over 18 years of age could vote, reduced registration restrictions, and limited state interference with voting rights. All of these expansions introduced new opinions to the political landscape and brought the United States closer to equality of representation while increasing democracy in the process.

The primary case against further expansion of eligible voters rests on the level of activity and involvement of those who do not currently participate, and what effect their involvement in democracy may have. Approximately twenty-five percent of the public is interested in politics most of the time, making up a group known as the attentive public. These individuals are better educated, more committed to democratic values, actively participate in elections, keep up to date on issues, and talk to their friends and family about politics. Such participation in democracy is essential for its function. Yet recent efforts to expand the number of eligible voters primarily involve easing the process of participation for those unwilling to put forth the minimal effort required today. For example, the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, called the “Motor Voter” bill, allowed people to register to vote while applying for or renewing a driver’s license. Before this act, individuals in most states had to separately register prior to elections in order to vote. The act may have made the registration process easier, but despite increasing registration, it ultimately did not increase voter turnout. And even if it had, the decisions of less politically informed voters have the potential to dilute the quality of results. Considering that forty percent of the public falls into a group known as know-nothings, who are both politically inactive and uninformed, the potential that people with the least information would have more power to sway elections with their votes than those with the most information may be cause for alarm, especially considering how external influences, such as the media, play a role in developing opinions. Such concerns remain predominantly hypothetical though, especially given that those most disinterested and uninformed truly are the least likely to vote.

The future of expanding eligible voter numbers is important to increasing democracy and requires improving technology, education, and mobilizing young people. In recent years there has been significant effort to mobilize young people, and with good reason: elected officials listen to the will of those who vote, so when young people fail to vote, their impact is smaller and the voices of those who do vote is disproportionately larger. The same holds true for any citizen and reflects the importance of expanding eligible voter numbers. Improving technology is one aspect of this effort, undertaken by Congress with the passing of the Help America Vote Act in 2002, which provided $3.9 billion to modernize voting procedures. And in October 2009, the nation’s first open source election software was released for public review as part of an effort to digitize voting and increase accessibility for those with disabilities and who do not speak English. The concept of internet voting also holds great potential to increase participation by eliminating the waiting time that may otherwise prevent individuals juggling work, school, and children, from making it to their local precinct. Education is also important in the efforts to increase eligible voter numbers as education is directly correlated with voting and helps create more politically informed citizens. Schools play a vital role in this and many colleges now require US History and US Politics courses. Finally, programs such as automatic voter registration and same-day registration can increase participation by simplifying the process of voting. This has been shown in countries such as Israel and Austria which have turnouts more than 30 percentage points greater than the United States.

While the United States has a strong history of expanding the number of eligible voters, doing so in modern times is not nearly as black and white as it used to be. Many recent attempts to increase eligible voters focus on the politically uninformed and inactive, which raises concerns. Despite such concerns, increasing participation through technology and education, especially among young people, is an essential part of democracy and necessary to ensuring that all citizens of the United States are represented in their government.