Ask a Scientist: The Importance of Being a Voter

January 14, 2020 | 4:45 pm
Elliott Negin
Senior Writer

With primaries underway across the country in advance of the November elections, it’s a good time to chat with Michael Latner, an associate professor at California Polytechnic State University and UCS’s first Kendall voting rights fellow. Michael’s award-winning academic work has largely focused on how redistricting, gerrymandering and electoral laws influence political representation. During his two-year UCS fellowship, he has broadened the scope of his research to include the impact of electoral system bias on public health and environmental protection, two key UCS priorities. Last November, he published a report titled Our Unhealthy Democracy: How Voting Restrictions Harm Public Health and What We Can Do About It. Below is an edited transcript of a recent conversation I had with him.

EN: In the report you posted late last year, you made the case that the right to participate in the electoral process is an essential tool for communities to protect themselves. Why is it so important for people to vote?

Michael Latner is a Kendall Voting Rights Fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy. His research focuses on political representation and electoral systems.

ML: Our society, and democratic societies more generally, use elections to guide collective decisionmaking, from allocating resources to regulating norms and morals, by which I mean, for example, having access to abortion services or being able to purchase marijuana legally. The information that comes out of the electoral process has tremendous consequences by determining political leadership, which parties have the most political power, and who has the power to steer policymaking to their advantage. This last point is probably the most important in explaining why so many countries have adopted electoral democracy, because the more people who have a say in collective decisionmaking, the lower the probability that any one individual or group of individuals will be able to use the levers of government to exploit others.

Scientifically speaking, it is useful to think of elections as a kind of sampling, or periodic measuring, of public sentiment. For this to work, every individual needs to have an equal vote, and everyone needs to vote, to obtain an accurate measure.

Now, for all sorts of reasons, no system is perfect. But as long as everyone has an equal opportunity to vote, and most people vote, a municipality, a state, or a nation can get an accurate enough sample to steer its policymaking process. When people don’t vote, they fail to register their preferences, and that information is missing from the process.

Where we run into real problems, and where there is a greater potential for systematic errors, is when there are significant inequalities, or differences, between voters and non-voters. Those inequalities generate biased sampling.

EN: If voting is so important, why don’t more Americans exercise that right? In 2018, 53 percent of the voting-age population voted, the highest mid-term turnout in four decades. That may sound great, but it means nearly half of the eligible voters sat out the election. In 2016, 60 percent voted, so 40 percent didn’t show up. According to the Pew Research Center, “nonvoters [in 2016] were more likely to be younger, less educated, less affluent and nonwhite. And nonvoters were much more Democratic.” What is stopping eligible voters from voting?

ML: Voting, like all activities, is costly in the sense that it takes resources — time, attention, and organization, for example — so people with more time, education, and organization are more likely to vote. Besides that, anything that makes it more difficult to vote is going to exacerbate inequalities in voting. And as you have probably already figured out, to the extent that politicians can manipulate voter eligibility, ballot access and other aspects of the electoral process to shape the electorate by excluding some voters and advantaging others, they can bias election outcomes in their favor.

As my report documents, in this last decade there has been a resurgence in restrictive electoral laws from some state legislatures seeking to insulate themselves from public accountability. Restrictive registration laws, purging eligible voters from registration lists, selectively reducing access to voting precincts, and gerrymandering electoral boundaries to dilute the strength of specific categories of voters are all contributing to lower turnout and biased representation.

The Wisconsin Legislature, for example, has tried to purge hundreds of thousands of eligible voters, enough to determine which presidential candidate wins the electoral college in 2020. New Hampshire and North Carolina legislators, meanwhile, are using residency requirements and strict identification laws to target students, and other states are using felon disenfranchisement and restrictions on early voting to target African-American and Latinx communities.

We are seeing a massive, systematic effort to suppress voter turnout in 2020, and while there likely will be a record turnout this year, in a competitive election it does not take a lot of voter suppression to alter the outcome.

EN: How does the percentage of Americans voting compare with voting in other democracies? Is turnout better elsewhere? If so, what policies do they have in place to encourage voting?

ML: For a wealthy democracy, the United States regularly has low turnouts, and much of it has to do with repressive election laws. Some of the explanation is historical. Indeed, the earliest voter registration laws and citizenship requirements were used to exclude women, free African Americans, and European and Asian immigrants from the political process, and variations of these laws continue to hinder millions of Americans from exercising their voting rights.

When you look at other countries, it is also apparent that the way we do democracy all too often discourages voter turnout. For one, we have too many elections, too often, and that contributes to voter fatigue. While we have “democratized” party nomination procedures by adopting primaries, and we often separate national from state and local elections, what this means in practice is that we have a lot of elections with insufficient media coverage and information for voters. At the same time, the two dominant political parties in our country are effective at minimizing competition and blocking new parties. As a result, we get low turnout elections where only the most dedicated, and often the most partisan voters, turn up on election day.

Where I live in California, it seems like we have an election every six months, on every office from dog catcher to district judge. That is a lot to ask, and given the extraordinary high levels of inequality we have compared to other counties, election outcomes tend to be more biased to favor the already well-connected.

EN: You offered a long list of recommendations in your report to boost U.S. turnout. What are the top three things that need to happen to get more people to vote? What can individual citizens do to improve the situation?

ML: If I could wave a magic wand and make three changes to our electoral process, I would say that automatic voter registration, expanding voting opportunities, and moving to more proportional election rules would be the most effective and empowering reforms.

First, automatically registering all adult citizens to vote would significantly reduce inequalities in turnout and prohibit the selective use of discriminatory registration laws. More than a dozen states have already implemented or adopted automatic voter registration, or AVR, and millions of new voters will be eligible to vote in 2020. States can easily update an integrated voter registration list with other statewide databases to provide a more accurate and secure means of administering elections. I also would consider lowering the voting age to 16 so that voter registration could be incorporated into a high school civics curriculum.

Second, the idea of a single election day where people have to take time off from work on a Tuesday is horribly outdated. Allowing all voters to vote by mail, or drop off their ballots at a voting center at least two weeks prior to the election deadline, would greatly reduce barriers to participation, and give voters time to complete a ballot in their homes with all the information available to them. Additionally, early voting incentivizes political organizations to mobilize voters and get them to the polls, and they would have more time to do it.

Finally, the most substantial improvement would be to make everyone’s vote truly count by using proportional representation. For most U.S. elections, including our congressional elections, voters are assigned to a single district, and that district is, more often than not, dominated by a single political party. Moving to multi-district, proportional representation would open the system to much greater competition while providing more accurate representation, especially for minorities of all types.

Imagine if, instead of having a single representative, we used a five-seat district system where I live, on California’s Central Coast. If voters in my district that vote 55 percent Republican and 45 percent Democrat, we would have representatives from both parties — three Republicans and two Democrats — and both parties would be more representative of their constituents. That means that Republicans in urban areas and Democrats in rural areas would be more accurately represented, and any group, or any party, could win a seat with 20 percent of the vote. Additionally, we could do away with primaries, reducing voter fatigue. Opening up the process to more competition this way would give voters more choices, and would more accurately represent the diversity of public sentiment.


About the author

More from Elliott

Elliott writes about UCS-related topics for a range of news organizations. Prior to joining UCS, Elliott was the Washington communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a foreign news editor at National Public Radio, the managing editor of American Journalism Review, and the editor of Nuclear Times and Public Citizen magazines.