This summer, I interned on a gubernatorial campaign in my home state of Colorado. This campaign marked my first real political activity, my first opportunity to look directly at how people engage with campaigns as canvassers, volunteers, interns, and voters.
Colorado has made it relatively easy to participate in primary and general elections–ballots are mailed, you could register on election day, all in addition to the usual election day polls.
Because of this, I was frustrated to come across people who couldn’t be bothered to vote. It’s so easy to do, so why do so many people sit idly by as election day comes and goes? Why do so few people register in time?
Coming to Pennsylvania, I brought similar ignorance, assuming that registration and voting was as simple as it was back home.
Pennsylvania currently does not allow early voting without excuse, meaning that someone is not allowed to vote at a polling location prior to election day unless they apply for an absentee ballot (which is complicated to apply for and sometimes ineffective). This means people have to vote in person on election day, often faced with long and slow moving lines, like the one pictured below from the 2016 presidential election here in Philadelphia.
Voting in these conditions just isn’t feasible. Cassy recently wrote an excellent blogpost about how political fatigue can disincentivize political participation. But, another very real barrier to mobilization is the difficulty people find on election day, decreasing their desire to participate in what seems to be a grueling voting process. A Pew Research Center study following the 2016 election reported that 14% of registered voters who did not vote stated that they were “too busy” or had “conflicting schedules”.
Election day coincides with midterms and other school work, and sacrificing hours to stand in line isn’t a priority for many students. For others, it is difficult to carve out a substantive period of time to go out and vote. Whether it be work or other commitments, the difficulty to vote in person is a serious issue that affects turnout. And unfortunately, the worst of the impacts can be seen in predominantly minority communities. Because of poor resource allocation, these precincts maintain fewer voting machines and poll workers, resulting in longer voting lines and a more inefficient process. Voting is supposed to be equal, but we see massive imbalances in voter turnout across class lines. This “participation gap” gives more power to higher-income individuals, resulting in unequal representation in our electorate.
So, what can we do about it?
Politicians need to push for legislation that mitigate deterrents to political engagement. Early voting could decrease the number of people in line on election day and allow constituents to vote when they are able to and on their terms without having to provide an official “excuse” like requesting an absentee ballot currently demands.
Some studies indicate that the implementation of early voting policies, such as mail-in ballots, increased voter turnout, though data is split on how substantial the impact actually is. But, in my opinion, even the prospect of improving voter turnout is worth attempting. Government ought to be representative of everyone, not just elites who have the ability to vote in given current conditions.
Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf proposed plans to reform PA voting laws by allowing for same day registration and allowing for “non-excuse” absentee ballots. But, this is just the beginning. To truly award every citizen who wants to vote the opportunity to do so–and to in turn start to decrease the inequality in turnout–Pennsylvania needs to take further actions through implementing early voting measures.
States like Washington demonstrate the potential of more progressive voting policies that Democratic politicians can implement. New Jersey, with full Democratic control, allows for early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. Washington, soon after gaining Democratic control, passed massive voting registration reforms, such as automatic voter registration, Election Day registration, and which increased the overall turnout rate by 2-3 percentage points.
With Democratic politicians in Pennsylvania, we will see a push for more engagement overall and a more functional democracy. And, the need for voting reform means our involvement in these midterms is even more important to preserving our right to vote in future elections. The midterms are a little over two weeks away, so talk to your friends, canvass, and phone bank! We need as many people as possible voting in these elections so #PAVotesBlue.
This post reflects the opinions of the author and is not necessarily representative of those of Penn Democrats.