In April the residents of Ferguson will go to the polls to vote on the city’s leadership. One way to increase voter participation in the election would be to keep the polls open two days instead of just one. Arguably, all elections, federal and state, should allow for voting over multiple days.
State and Federal elections occurred just over a week ago. I wasn’t able to vote, I was out of town that day. My travel plans changed at the last minute and I missed the window to submit an absentee ballot. Unfortunately, I wasn’t alone – this election had the lowest voter participation in over eighty years.
One of the causes of the lower turnout is likely the changes in campaign finance laws that allowed a vast amount of money to flow into mostly negative advertising. Undoubtedly some voters got disgusted by the whole thing and just stayed home. But our changing, increasingly fast paced world is also part of the problem.
When I voted in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012 I stood in line for almost three hours each time. There is nothing else in my life I wait in line for that long. Instead of camping out for concert tickets, I order them online. If I want to go to a movie premier, I can reserve seats. Even the emergency room allows reservations and promises no waiting. Literally everything I do in life can be accomplished much, much faster than was possible even ten years ago.
Everything except for voting. The voting process has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Even the introduction of electronic voting machines didn’t actually speed up the process of voting – it speeds up the process of vote counting. We have an 18th century voting process in our 21st century world.
The challenges of our system of voting fall disproportionately on the working poor. Usually I can adjust my day to avoid the long lines at the voting places – I’m self-employed, so I can go during the day when lines are shorter. And taking time off to vote doesn’t cost me any money. This is true for most salaried workers – they can take the time during the day without having their salaries reduced. The working poor, and particularly those working two jobs, face a much greater challenge. If they leave their jobs during business hours they lose wages. If they work two jobs, they have to arrange their schedules to free up an evening to stand in line to vote.
This, really, is the great disappointment of our voting system: it favors salaried workers or self-employed over hourly workers, and particularly hourly workers that have to work two jobs. It favors people that have a stay at home spouse or that can afford child care over those that have to rely on friends and family to take care of their children.
There is a small part of the Republican Party that is happy our system makes it harder for hourly workers to vote – they are more concerned about winning than democracy. But most people in our country do strongly support the right of all Americans to participate in elections, including hourly workers. Most Americans support the idea that all men and women deserve the right to vote.
Our current system stands in the way of this core belief. I have friends in the technology field that envision a world where people vote securely while sitting in front of their computers or tablets. This might eventually happen, but we are years if not decades away from the level of security necessary. Bored seventeen year olds have proven remarkably successful at breaking into bank computer systems, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on security. The idea of a bored teen affecting the outcome of an election is enough to give one nightmares.
But there is an interim step between the system we have today and online voting – increasing the number of days the polls are open. This little step, at a nominal cost, would greatly reduce the barriers to voting by the working poor. And Ferguson, Missouri, would be the perfect town in which to start this process. The city leaders are making a conscious effort to be more inclusive and address the underlying issues that have led to so much frustration in the African American community. Adding a second day of voting would be a tangible step to make the next Ferguson election more inclusive and democratic.