Comment: Those not voting aren’t lazy; maybe they’re burned out

Our elections system might be demanding too much consideration and effort in making myriad decisions.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

The U.S. sure finds a lot of ways to make it tough for voters.

Saturday was Election Day in San Antonio, where I live. I had eight things on my ballot: six local measures and two statewide ballot questions. There were no candidates to choose for me, although elsewhere in my local school district, which is one of several in the area, there were some contested elections for school board. I know that I’m not in one of those constituencies, but only because my wife voted early this week, so I was safe ignoring the minimal local newspaper coverage of the school board.

All I need to do is figure out how to vote on the eight questions. Six were easy for me; I like and trust our mayor, so I did what he recommended on the local ones. The others were trickier. All of it was quite a bit of work, which is one of the reasons I’m anticipating that most people won’t have shown up; even though the elections on local bond measures will have important and direct effects on life in this area for years to come.

Another reason I expect low turnout? Because I haven’t even mentioned the most confusing thing: This is an entirely separate election from the primary runoffs taking place here on Tuesday, May 24. That’s right: We have two Election Days this month, on different days of the week, on different topics. The second set of elections is important, too; among other things, both parties will be making their choices for Texas attorney general. Those aren’t easy choices either, given that, as primary elections, there’s no obvious cue for voters. If you want to vote, you have to do some research. Totally separate research, however, from that required for the May 7 elections.

Ohio and Indiana had elections this week. Those states had ways to challenge voters, too. Polls closed in Indiana at 6 in the evening, the earliest (along with Kentucky) in the nation. Ohio, for some reason, is one of three states with the odd voting hours of 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. That at least makes it easier to vote after work for most people with traditional work hours, but … really? Why not at the top of the hour?

Every state has different rules; not just about when to vote, but what to vote for, with enormous differences about which offices and what kind of ballot measures are subject to elections. Not to mention that the terminology can be wildly different. If you grow up in one place and stay there, that’s no big deal, but for those who move from state to state, it can be awfully confusing.

All of this is bizarre by world standards. I’ll cast more votes in the four (or more) elections I vote in this year — primary, primary runoff, local and state ballot measures and then the general election, with the possibility of runoffs from that and who knows what else we might have before the year is out — than voters in many democracies face in a lifetime of voting.

Some of it is justified. Federalism multiplies the offices we vote for, but it also means that it’s relatively easy to get meaningfully involved in politics at a local level. I’m a fan of bicameralism and separated institutions sharing powers, even though that, too, adds to the number of elections we are asked to vote in.

But most of the time, the reason it’s hard to vote is because someone with clout wanted to discourage people from voting. There’s no good reason, for example, why San Antonio has local elections on spring Saturdays in odd-numbered years instead of consolidating them with regular November elections in even-numbered years.

No good reason, that is, if the goal is a healthy republic. If the goal, however, is to increase the influence of the most frequent voters at the expense of everybody else? Well, it’s quite successful at that. Similarly, forcing votes on bond measures (as we in San Antonio and many other local jurisdictions require) may seem like a way to give voters more power, but in fact it does the opposite by giving voters way more choices than they can realistically handle.

If the U.S. and its states and local jurisdictions consolidated elections days, eliminated most ballot measures, eliminated elections for judges at any level and reduced multiple elected offices at the state and local levels, Americans would still face lots of election days by world standards, but the burden on voters would be dramatically reduced. Eliminating nonpartisan elections and allowing parties to operate in local elections would also help citizens cast better-informed votes while giving them less work to do.

The idea isn’t that voters should be lazy or that voters are stupid. I’m all for political participation. But for those who are just beginning to be interested in political involvement, the complexity of the U.S. ballot is a barrier to entry. That’s no accident.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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