LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS®
Fact Sheet: Voter Participation in Maryland
Delegates to the 1999 LWVMD Convention adopted a study to develop League positions that will further the League's "Making Democracy Work" project by increasing voter participation. Low voter turnout is recognized as a serious threat to our democracy: nationwide, 49.8% of the voting age population voted in 1996; 1998 saw only 36.4% of that population going to the polls. (Comparable figures for Maryland were 46.6% in 1996, and 39.4% in 1998).
The Study Committee focused its research on Maryland's current policies and practices covering vote registration and balloting, and how other states and the District of Columbia administer elections. This Fact Sheet discusses the results of our research, and addresses how lack of access to the voting process can be alleviated.
The Committee plans an informational study in 2000-2001 of how methods, such as proportional representation, may affect trust in government and voter turnout.VOTING SYSTEMS CONSIDERED
The majority of states have a deadline to register to vote that is between 24 and 30 days prior to an election. An increasing number of states are shortening that time. Maryland's current registration deadline is 25 days prior to an election. Seven states allow registration at the polling place on election day. The LWVUS supports same-day registration.
Statistically, the states with same-day registration have higher voter turnout than those without; states with an early registration deadline have lower voter turnout than those with a later deadline.
Proponents for short deadlines or election may registration argue that less politically inclined citizens, especially young ones, frequently aren't inspired to participate in the process until high visibility campaign debates or frenetic last minute campaigning assaults them, and by then, it's too late to join the process in most states.
Opponents of short deadlines or election day registration fear the possibility of fraudulent registration which cannot be detected until after the votes are tabulated. They also question the ability of local election authorities to provide adequate officials/judges on election day to process applications.
Consideration could be given to phasing in a lowered registration deadline, for example, 15 days in 4 years, 10 days in 8 years, election day registration in 12 years.
Provisional ballots are a means of meeting the "fail-safe" provisions of the National Voter Registration Act. Its purpose is, on the one hand, to ensure that voters are not deprived of their right to vote, and on the other hand, to guard against voter fraud. Provisional balloting would be activated if the voter's name does not appear on the list of eligible voters when she appears at the polling place to vote. The cause might be change of address not reported to the election board, deletion of the voter's name through error, computer error, or a claim that the voter has already voted (or received an absentee ballot). The voter will be allowed to vote, using special procedures. Her vote will be isolated until her registration can be validated by searching election board records. The preferred method of isolation is to seal the ballot in an envelope and set it aside until her registration status can be determined. In the case of a voter who has moved or who has otherwise appeared at a polling place where she is not registered, she may be required to cast that provisional that provisional ballot at either her former poll or her new poll. In some instances, she may be allowed to vote unprovisionally even though she is no longer a resident of that district. This would be on a one time basis.
If she is required to vote provisionally, when and if the validity of the registration is verified, the ballot is mingled with the general body of ballots. If not, it will be excluded from the vote count. In most cases, however, an appeal process is provided. When this is completed, again the ballot will either be counted or not. Another advantage of provisional balloting is that disputes at the polling place are avoided. At this point, 11 states allow provisional voting.
Objections to provisional voting are the extra expense and the additional time to determine the actual outcome of the election. The election process is lengthened by the time it takes to review election board records to determine the provisional voter's registration status. Some candidates may object to a prolonged period of suspense.
Proponents of provisional voting argue that computerization of registration records will allow searches to occur quickly and that voter participation will be increased because voters who are unsure of their registration status, who might ordinarily stay away from the polls to avoid embarrassing problems at the polling place, will vote provisionally.
Some 16 states, mostly in the West, use some kind of all-mail ballot elections, in which all registered voters receive official ballots by mail and return completed ballots by mail to their local election authority, eliminating voting at polling places. All-mail voting has most frequently been used for special elections or elections not involving candidates. Besides the cost-saving of not having to hire thousands of polling place workers, officials in these states have found that voters like the convenience of having the ballot two to three weeks before the election.
Ballots are sent to registered voters by non-forwardable mail so that voters who are no longer eligible to vote in that jurisdiction by virtue of a change of address do not get them. All-mail balloting has changed the way campaigns are run; candidates must organize earlier, do more mailing and spend less on others methods of campaigning. This method of voting has increased voter turnout significantly where it has been used.
Texas and some other states allow registered voters to cast ballots in person at the local election board and at designated satellite locations for two to three weeks before election day. Election officials staff voting sites at shopping malls, schools, churches, grocery stores, or community centers. They have the records of registered voters so they can determine eligibility and they can notify the central office that a voter has voted, to prevent the voter from voting at another location. They employ procedures to protect the security of all ballots and other materials.
This is convenient for the voter and Texas officials have found that in some areas, as many as 50% of the voters take advantage of early voting. It seems to increase voter participation; in some precincts as many as 70% to 80% of registered voters voted.
Where permanent absentee lists are used, registered voters are allowed to stay on a list of approved absentee voters and receive an application/ballot without re-applying.
Four states (Oregon, Washington, Utah (some jurisdictions), New Jersey) maintain unrestricted permanent absentee lists. Six states (Kansas, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee and California) have permanent absentee lists, but inclusion on this list is restricted, usually to physical disability.
Permanent absentee lists are convenient for registered voters. A voter should not have to re-apply for an absentee ballot if the condition by which she qualifies remains the same. Permanent absentee lists save time and money for the election board, because absentee ballots or applications are automatically generated by non-forwardable mail to registered voters on the list, without the need to respond to individual requests. Voter participation would increase because repeated applications for absentee ballots can be a barrier.
However, permanent absentee lists also discourage personal participation at the polls. (In Oregon, the permanent absentee list evolved into all-mail voting) There would also be potential increased mailing costs to election boards if applications are mailed to all on the list instead of just to those who remember to apply.
The Study Committee felt strongly that if such a permanent absentee list were to be adopted, applications should be automatically generated, not a ballot. This would prevent the issuance of ballots to deceased or relocated voters.
Serious study has begun on the issue of using the Internet to vote in official elections. Pilot projects in recent presidential primaries resulted in increased turnout by those who might not otherwise vote, and no serious problems arose.
The Secretary of State of California appointed a highly knowledgeable task force to thoroughly study the issue of Internet voting, and its recommendations have been reported. The task force recommended implementing this process in a staged and graduated manner, with Internet voting first done at the polling place under the watchful eye of regular election officials, and graduating to voting at secure sites with the supervision of election officials, then voting at secure sites without supervision, and finally, voting by Internet from home or office.
Opponents to Internet voting are concerned with the security of the balloting process, and election officials point out that they are not presently capable of offering this method because of the lack of digitized voter information, including signatures. The California task force recognizes these serious security issues, and also remarks about the possibility of voter intimidation by employers and others. Others fear that the "digital divide" will result in some segments of the population being left out of the voting process if voting by computer is their only option.
Proponents of Internet voting believe that it may be an effective method of involving younger citizens in the election process. They point out that millions of dollars could be saved by eliminating election day personnel and polling place voting equipment. They also assume that it will certainly be possible to vote by Internet at some point in the future, and that progressive states will experiment with Internet voting in controlled ways before adopting it as the single voting process.
According to our survey, 19 states offer some type of voters' pamphlet or material to voters before an election. In the vast majority of these states, the publication contains no candidate information, but is only published when there is a ballot question.
These are expensive, and Maryland has not had money to provide this service by mail to voters in the past. However, beginning in 2000, ballot questions will be place on the State Election Board's Web site, and can be reviewed there, or printed out for further distribution and study. The official wording of the questions will be included, with no explanation or narrative explanation. This option of information retrieval, of course, is limited to those with computer access.
What most voters are looking for, however, is candidate information. Candidate information in a voter's pamphlet could be provided by each candidate, or by a neutral third party (such as the League of Women Voters).
LWVMD has lobbied in the past for a simplified-language, non-partisan and neutral, state-issued and state-funded voter's pamphlet. This consensus offers the opportunity for LWVMD to reaffirm that position, if we choose to do so.
LWVMD Voter Participation Study, 1999-2000
Generally accepted criteria to evaluate an election system are:
- Provides ballot security
- Produces an accurate ballot count
- Is convenient for voters
- Efficiently and cost-effectively uses election resources
- Is non-discriminatory
- Promotes educating voters
- Is accessible to disabled voters and safe for all voters
Using the above identified criteria, evaluate the following potential changes to our present voting processes or procedures with the goal of increasing voter participation. This evaluation will necessarily require a balancing of the accepted criteria. For instance, all-mail voting is cost effective, but does it provide ballot security? Or, week-end and early voting is convenient for voters, but is it cost-effective? Or, Internet voting is convenient, but does it discriminate against those who do not have access to or knowledge of computers?
WHICH CHANGES WOULD YOU SUPPORT AND WHY?
1. SAME DAY REGISTRATION - allow voters to register at the polling place on election day. LWVUS has supported same day registration; should LWVMD pursue the required change in law for Maryland?
2. SHORTEN THE DEADLINE TO REGISTER TO VOTE BEFORE AN ELECTION. If so, what should the deadline be?
3. PROVISIONAL BALLOTS - allowing a voter whose name is not listed on the polling place election register to vote a ballot which is segregated from regularly cast ballots until the election authority can confirm the eligibility of the voter.
4. ALL MAIL VOTING - procedures whereby all voters receive official ballots by mail and return completed ballots by mail to their local election authority, eliminating voting at polling places on election day.
5. EARLY VOTING - allowing voters to cast ballots in person at the local election board or at designated satellite locations for some period prior to the election. If so, would you support early voting at the election board only, at satellite locations, or both?
6. PERMANENT ABSENTEE VOTING - the local election authority maintains a list of absentee voters who have qualified for absentee voter status, either by voter affirmation of necessity or certification of a medical condition. Those voters are automatically sent an application for an absentee ballot prior to each election.
7. INTERNET VOTING - voting on a computer via the Internet. Would you support study, research and pilot projects to determine the feasibility of Internet voting in Maryland?
8. VOTER'S INFORMATION PAMPHLET - an informative, non-partisan, and opinion-neutral education publication produced and distributed at government expense prior to each election. If so, should the pamphlet contain information about candidates or only ballot questions or referenda issues?
9. OTHER - Do you have other ideas to suggest?