Why You Should Focus On Election Reforms That Make A Difference

Pew Research released a poll surveying Americans’ feelings about the 2014 midterms, and down at the bottom were the responses from those who didn’t vote. The Washington Post’s Wonkblog made a handy chart of their responses. Now, here’s the thing, Wonkblog decided to split this into two categories: structural reasons and personal reasons (you’ll see that if you click over to their site). But that’s not how Pew divided the responses. This is:

Pew Nonvoters

I think Wonkblog made a big mistake here. They describe the split in this way:

In short, voters didn’t make it to the polls for two overarching reasons – either they were indifferent and couldn’t be bothered, or there were structural forces conspiring against them – rigid job/school schedules or difficulties with the voting process overall.

But that’s wrong, it’s not what the Pew answers show. The way Wonkblog frames this is as though there’s voter indifference (something impossible to overcome) on one side and structural forces (something which can be changed) on the other. And the Pew data only shows only one thing that can’t be overcome: people who didn’t care enough to go vote.

Pew split it up to show that time was the major impediment to voters making it to the polls. In fact, if you include the missed registration deadline, you could make a compelling argument that somewhere close to 80% of people who didn’t vote failed to do so because of poor voting access.

And this is why I doubt the sincerity of the so-called election reformers who rallied around eliminating the master lever and then dried up (or worse, are decrying better electoral reforms when they’re suggested). The master lever barely improved Rhode Island democracy. Proponents of its abolition were very concerned about the under-counting of votes, and the problem this has for races. And yet, every time we have an election, we routinely ignore that huge swathes of voters are not making it to the polls. At best it gets remarked on in post-election retrospectives about turnout, and then people bitch about voter apathy; all to no productive outcome.

Well guess what, voter apathy can be solved. The biggest hurdles Pew lists can be overcome with something like early voting. Can’t make it because of work or school conflicts, or because you were sick, or away, or forgot about it? Don’t worry about it, you can vote early tomorrow or on the weekend. Say you can’t make it because you didn’t have transportation? Well now you have extra days to try and arrange it!

The other ones can be solved, too. Missed the registration deadline or moved recently and your vote is no longer valid? Don’t worry, same day registration is available. Didn’t know enough? Here’s a candidate statement on your ballot you can read! Here’s a booklet from the Secretary of State that includes all the candidates and their issues! Did we mention you have an extra amount of time to decide before you cast your vote thanks to early voting?

Didn’t like the choice offered? Well, we’ve lowered the threshold necessary for third parties to be registered, and switched the voting system so that it doesn’t trend towards two centrist parties! Didn’t care to go to the polls? Well, we’ve instituted compulsory voting, so now you at least have to go to the voting booth; whether you scratch your ballot in there is up to you!

Poor turnout isn’t an accident of the RI election system, it’s a feature of it. It’s something that was designed into our election system. And here’s the thing, we have the power to design it out of our system. All of the reforms I’ve listed above will make a bigger impact on having a more flourishing and more representative democracy than the abolition of the master lever. If I had two pick just two, I’d say early voting and same-day registration should be the priority.

All of it ultimately comes down to values. And here’s the thing, the vast majority of the people who supported the abolition of the master lever and aren’t going to spend the time advocating for reforms that would have a greater impact. Because they don’t value a better democracy for all Rhode Islanders. They value a democracy that better serves people like them. Which is why you’ll find people advocating hare-brained, inherently anti-democratic ideas like an electoral college for Providence.

Which is why I spend a lot of my time writing about election reforms that will have a big impact. Because those reforms are the ones that actually improve democracy. On the Hello Internet podcast, CGP Grey made a good point: you can hardly begin to talk about the big problems of America until you talk about the problem of how its elections are run. If something like 60% of our General Assembly candidates don’t face even a token opponent in the general election, something is wrong with our democracy. When one party has an electoral incentive to favor decreased voter turnout, something is wrong with our democracy. And the fault doesn’t lie with the voters or the citizenry, the fault is in the electoral system itself.

But, at present, leadership in government favors the outcomes that our hamstrung democracy provides. Even the “opposition” (if you can really even call it that) prefers only marginal changes to the status quo. If you wonder why Rhode Islanders hate their government and yet are unable to change it, the answer is plain to see: they don’t have an electoral system that favors change.

I wish I could be a bit more hopeful, but I simply don’t see it being different any time soon.


  1. Do you know how many of these reforms would need legislative action, and how many the secretary of state could implement?

  2. And to be fair, Mackay never rallied around eliminating the master lever. He said the same thing, that it won’t make a difference

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