This November’s presidential election will present a stark choice between President Barack Obama and a Republican challenger, and voter turnout analysts predict a decline in voter turnout from our 62 percent turnout of eligible voters in 2008. Voter motivation is one reason why American turnout lags behind that of many nations. Most Americans experience limited choice and a relatively low chance of electing strongly favored candidates. For example, in 2010 only one in four eligible voters elected a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives (what we call “the Representation Index”). In contrast, in Denmark’s last elections, nearly five in six eligible voters elected representatives to its national legislature from an array of choices, voter turnout was more than 85 percent, and its system of proportional representation led to more than 95 percent of voters electing their preferred choice.
Our broken voter registration system is a more direct barrier to participation. In fact, if every single registered voter participated this November, we still would trail many nations in turnout. According to a new study by the Pew Center on the States Election Initiatives, of some 220 million eligible American votes, more than 50 million aren’t registered to vote. Another 24 million voter registrations have serious data problems that could block or interfere with voting.
It won’t take rocket science to ensure that every eligible voter is registered to vote and that all ineligible voters are not. What we need is a national commitment to take on the challenge, some start-up resources and smart use of existing databases. Other countries continue to modernize their systems, with international norms for voter registration rates typically well above 90 percent of eligible voters.