Lessons from America: ideas and caveats from the US midterm elections

This month, a new session of the United States Congress met for the first time since November’s mid-term elections. The election results brought mixed fortunes for the country’s main political parties. Although the Republicans retained control of the US Senate, the Democrats gained the seats they needed to take control of the House of Representatives.

Beyond the impact on American politics, the 2018 vote shone a light on the management of elections in the US, with a particular focus on registration and voting issues arising on election day. It’s worth taking a closer look to see if the midterms offer any lessons for the UK system of voting.

Voter Registration

Electoral registration is an important and often highly sensitive issue. The validity of elections depends on ensuring a high turnout, which means encouraging all eligible voters to ensure their names are on the electoral register.

In the United States, electoral registration is very complicated, as each of the fifty states has its own registration rules, processes, and deadlines. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York School of Law has described the US voter registration system as ‘broken’, and ‘a chief cause of long lines and election day chaos’

During the run-up to the mid-term elections, many states reported record numbers of voter registrations, reflecting intense media attention and the widely held view that the mid-terms represented a referendum on the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency. On national voter registration day alone, 865,000 people registered to vote, compared to the 154,500 people who had registered in 2014.

However, concerns have been raised that some states have been making it harder for US citizens to register, particularly among African-Americans, Hispanics and other marginalised groups. A report in The New York Times highlighted attempts in Alabama and several other states to require proof of citizenship before granting the right to register to vote in state and local elections. There were also reports that strict voter registration requirements had disproportionately disadvantaged students in New Hampshire, that poorly labelled forms prevented more than 300,000 voters in Arizona from updating their voter registration information, and that manipulation of voter rolls had been taking place in Georgia and Ohio.

One possible way of overcoming these problems is automatic voter registration (AVR). The Brennan Center for Justice reports that fifteen states and the District of Columbia have approved AVR, and more states are expected to join the list. The policy streamlines registration by making it opt-out instead of opt-in for eligible citizens who interact with government agencies. For example, under AVR anyone issued with a driver’s licence has their details passed to the electoral registration authorities and they are then automatically registered to vote.

The impact of AVR has been striking. Since Oregon became the first state in the US to implement AVR in 2016 voter registration rates have quadrupled, while in the first six months after AVR was implemented in Vermont in 2017, registration rates jumped by 62%.

Election day voting issues

The record numbers registering to vote was a foretaste of the turnout for the mid-term elections.  An estimated 114 million votes were cast by voters for the House of Representatives. This was a significant increase on the 83 million votes cast in 2014, and the first time a midterm election surpassed 100 million votes.

However, the figure could have been higher. Across the US, there were reports of delays in polling stations opening, long queues of people waiting to vote and extensions to the scheduled closing times. In many cases, the problems were caused by technical issues and equipment failures due to the use of ageing voting machines. Unlike UK voters, for many years, Americans have been using a variety of devices to cast their votes, from punch card systems to touch-screen technology. However, in the most recent elections, 41 states used voting machines that were at least a decade old, and most existing systems are no longer manufactured.

From broken ballot scanners in New York to machines changing votes in South Carolina and untested technology in Michigan, the technical difficulties heightened fears that inadequate equipment could undermine faith in democracy.

Another election day issue concerned the requirement for voter ID. Ten US states require eligible citizens to present some form of government-issued identification before they can vote. But 11% of Americans don’t have the relevant ID and certain groups, such as black communities, those on low incomes and students are even less likely to have the required documentation.

The problem has been compounded by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling which struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act introduced to protect minority voters. The 1965 Act required states to obtain permission from the federal government before changing voting laws. The 2013 ruling in effect struck down practices that helped make sure voting was fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.

Following the ruling, the state of Alabama enacted a strict voter ID law, which remained in force for the 2018 mid term elections. The state dismissed claims from civil rights groups that an estimated 118,000 potential voters lacked the necessary photo ID.

Lessons for the UK?

Registration

In 2014, the UK government replaced household registration with Individual Electoral Registration. While the new system improved the accuracy of the register and helped to counter fraud, there are concerns that certain groups of voters – such as students, private renters and young adults –  might be falling off the electoral register.

The success of AVR in the US suggests that this method of registration can ensure that these and other groups don’t miss out on voting, for example because they’ve forgotten to register after moving home.  The UK’s Electoral Commission has advocated an automatic registration scheme similar to that in Oregon, where citizens can register to vote whenever they are in contact with government, from getting a driving licence to applying for benefits.

Voting technology

Much has been made of internet voting as a way of improving turnout at elections. Estonia has pioneered online voting for parliamentary elections, but only a few countries have followed their example. In the UK, pilot schemes involving internet voting have taken place at local level, but there are no plans to introduced online voting for national polls. However, e-counting (the electronic counting of ballot papers) is becoming increasingly prevalent in Europe. An e-counting solution developed by Idox has been used successfully for elections in Scotland, Norway and Malta, resulting in considerable  improvements in speed and accuracy of results.  The problems caused by obsolete technology in the US elections underline the importance of ensuring the mechanics of elections systems are up to delivering transparent, fair democracy.

Voter ID

Concerns about election fraud has prompted the UK government to consider voter ID. During last year’s local elections, five areas in England piloted identity checks at polling stations. While some saw the trials as successful, others argued that the fact that hundreds of voters were turned away because they did not have the relevant documentation proves the policy of voter ID is misguided. Further trials of voter ID have been proposed, but these are being challenged.  The American experiences of voter ID raises questions about the exclusion of citizens from exercising their democratic rights.

Final thoughts

Delivering transparent, fair and accessible elections is never straightforward, but the challenge is all the greater in one of the world’s biggest democracies. America’s midterm elections may have changed the landscape of the country’s politics, but they’ve also provided ideas and caveats to exercise the minds of electoral administrators on this side of the Atlantic.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange Blog on elections:

Dementia and the right to vote

On 3rd May 2018 voters in England will go to the polls in local elections. These elections will decide the make-up of local and borough councils across the UK, as well as some additional direct elections for the Mayoralties of Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Watford.

As the population ages, questions arise over the ability and voting rights of those with age related degenerative mental conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Formal enquiries to council election teams, and general Google searches about the legal rights of someone with dementia to vote are increasing in number.

A dementia diagnosis does not alter a person’s right to vote. The Mental Capacity Act, which provides a framework for making decisions on behalf of people who lack capacity to make a decision, does not apply to voting. This means that a lack of mental capacity does not stop someone from being able to vote. It is up to the individual to decide if they want to vote. However, challenges can sometimes arise, if for example relatives vote for the individual, rather than on their behalf, voting for who they “think” the individual would have voted for, rather than who the individual themselves have expressed a wish to vote for.

This grey area can sometimes present challenges, especially as often this goes on in private. However, there are steps that can be taken to make voting as transparent as possible, and make the process of voting as accessible as possible for people with dementia (and other disabilities).

Image by secretlondon123, via Creative Commons

Physical adaptations

Physical adaptations can be made to the polling environment to make it more accessible for voters with dementia and Alzheimer’s. While there is a responsibility to make sure that polling stations are accessible to all, some adaptations can sometimes be overlooked, or are not made as obvious as they could be. Making polling stations “dementia friendly” can require just a few short adaptations, including perhaps a specific polling booth which uses labels like “in” and “out” and “pencil” in the booth itself.

Training for polling station staff on understanding how to react to and deal with voters who attend polling stations who have dementia is also seen as very important. In particular, there may be those who may need a carer to enter into the polling station with them. Poll station staff should be able to direct such voters in an appropriate way, regarding how to vote appropriately, especially if there are multiple elections happening on one day, with multiple ballot papers. Polling station staff should also be aware that they are able to help the voter to mark the paper (as the voter chooses) if for some reason they are unable to mark the page or hold the pencil themselves.

Removing additional barriers to voting such as reminding the individual to attend their polling station on the right day, or providing transport for those who are not mobile or do not know how to get to their polling station can also help make the process of voting in person, on the day a more pleasant experience for people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Postal or proxy votes: voting remotely from home

Increasing awareness of postal and proxy voting is another way that people with dementia and Alzheimer’s could exercise their right to vote without causing distress or confusion (which can sometimes be instigated by physically attending a polling station).

Postal voting allows the individual to vote from home and submit their ballot (and accompanying postal vote statement) via post. Voting by post can help reduce the potential stresses of an unfamiliar environment like the polling station. A signature is usually required on a postal vote, for security reasons, but if a voter is unable to sign their name, or if their signature varies a lot, then they can ask for a waiver. (If you want to do this, contact your local registration officer and they will help you, usually by sending you a waiver request form.)

A proxy vote allows the voter to nominate another person to vote on their behalf. A proxy does not make the decision about who to vote for on behalf of the person, but rather votes for who they are instructed to vote for by the original voter.

Guidance from the electoral commission has also been issued for Electoral Registration Officers (EROs), with regard to assisted applications to vote, and what can and can’t be done on behalf of a voter. This includes the presumption that a person has capacity. In addition, residents of care homes can be registered to vote by care home managers, who can complete an application for all residents, but again, cannot vote on their behalf (unless they are a registered proxy for the voter).

Graphic design image: three padlocks in front of a futuristic city.

Challenges and opportunities in the future

Additional challenges could be presented by the development of electronic voting. However, this could also be seen as an opportunity to create a voting system which is actually more straight forward and is easier to navigate for people with multiple disabilities, including dementia.

Estonia has one of the best developed e-voting systems in the world, with voting linked to a national digital ID card which contains photos and digital copies of fingerprints for additional security. The system can make the process of voting clearer, and also make it easier for people with a limited range of movement to vote themselves. However, there are a number of questions which have been raised as to whether this would be a feasible option in Britain.

Some have suggested it would not actually make voting any easier, that it would require a major overhaul of voting systems and the transfer of a lot of data and information, and that, given the recent uncertainty around cyber-attacks, there can be little certainty, with current software, that the process could be completely reliable and secure.

Final thoughts

Many people with dementia still hold strong political feelings, and know their own opinion when it comes to voting for political parties or in a referendum. However, the process of voting can often present them with specific challenges. It is up to local authority teams and their election partners to make the process as transparent and easy for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s as possible. Specific challenges include not spoiling the ballot, and the ability to write/ see the ballot paper and process the information quickly enough.

In 2017 the government launched a Call for Evidence asking for views on how people with disabilities experience registering to vote and voting itself. This included people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, although the results of this are as yet unpublished.

It is clear that, exercising your right to vote is something that should be protected for all citizens, but with the growing challenges raised by an ageing population, the time may be coming for the UK to have a major rethink about how it votes, and what changes could be made to make this easier for people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.


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Scotland eyes a youthquake with online voting: here are some tips from past pilots

Image: PA Images via the Conversation UK

This guest blog was written by Toby S James, Senior Lecturer in British & Comparative Politics, University of East Anglia.

One achievement for 2017, as the year came to an end, is that it has added a new word to the English language: youthquake. The idea is that previously silent and apathetic young people have awoken to exert their democratic influence on the electoral process.

Despite a 401% increase in usage of the word, a real youthquake is yet to happen. Voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds at the 2017 general election saw an upswing from 2015, but still only half (54%) voted. Participation in other types of elections remains much lower. Huge proportions of young people are also missing from the electoral register. There is therefore still a major gap in levels of electoral participation in Britain.

Now the Scottish government has published plans to reform how Scottish parliamentary and Scottish local elections are run, including an idea that many think will bring in younger people – internet voting.

The Scottish parliament recently gained new powers over how Scottish parliamentary elections and electoral registration are run. In its consultation document it wants to “explore and trial the potential of electronic voting solutions to” increase voter participation. The proposals for changes are impressively ambitious and more wide-ranging than those currently being considered by the UK government.

Internet voting has many supporters, who see enormous potential for improving voter participation among young people. It’s a sensible line of thought. There are many reasons why people don’t vote or engage with the electoral process, but a considerable amount comes down to basic convenience. We are busy. Registration and voting procedures that fit snugly with our everyday lifestyle will enable us to take part. Processes that are long-winded, archaic and bureaucratic will clink with routines, giving us just an extra reason not to vote. Young people are tech-savy and mobile phone ready. So why send them to the village hall to vote?

What we already know

The reality so far, however, is that internet voting hasn’t yet proved capable of bringing about a major awakening. Those with a long memory may remember that the UK actually piloted remote internet voting in 2002, 2003 and 2007 at a local level. In some areas, citizens could cast their vote from any personal computer with an internet connection using personalised information provided on their polling card.

This was part of a broader set of pilots introduced by New Labour which also included postal voting, telephone voting, SMS voting, digital TV voting and even supermarket voting alongside good old fashioned polling stations which began in 2000.

One lesson from these pilots, drawn from my my evaluation, was that it was actually all-postal elections that could have the biggest effect on turnout. This involved sending a postal vote to citizens automatically instead of asking them to go to the polling station. In the first year of pilots (2000), all-postal voting took place in wards in seven local authorities, and turnout rose in every instance on the previous year. In Gateshead, turnout jumped up from 26.4% in 1999 to 57.3% with all postal elections.

Drawing lessons about the the effects of internet voting were difficult because it was offered to citizens in pilots alongside many other ways of voting. This was a major design flaw with the pilots that shouldn’t be repeated in Scotland, if it goes ahead. Only one new voting method should be trialled in each pilot area so that we can see what effect it has.

A clear message, however, was that internet voting was much more frequently used when it was available up until the close of the poll – in many pilots it was unavailable on election day itself. This should therefore be made possible as part of any future pilot.

Subsequent international work doesn’t provide much evidence that internet voting considerably boosts voter turnout either. Estonia became the first country ever to use internet voting in binding national parliamentary elections in 2007. But again, there is no evidence of a major surge in youth turnout.

Concerns about cyber-security would probably make use at a UK-wide election a non-starter. But over ten years since the first UK pilots, there is a strong case for experimenting with new pilots of internet voting at the local level, where the motivations to hack an election are much lower, and the number of non-voters is much greater. Central and local governments have a responsibility to make voting as convenient as possible – and smart phones are much more widely available today than they were in 2003.

The lessons from internet voting experiments so far suggest that there are many other reasons why people don’t vote, however. These could be easily addressed with other measures, such as voter registration reform and civic education. Last year, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation proposed 25 measures to improve voter registration across the UK, such as the use of automatic voter registration. 2017 was also the year in which we discovered that electoral administrators had been cutting voter outreach work to engage young people due to financial austerity. There are therefore many other less headline grabbing reforms which could help to generate a youthquake.


Toby S James is Senior Lecturer in British & Comparative Politics, University of East Anglia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Toby’s research has been externally funded by the British Academy, Leverhulme Trust, AHRC, ESRC, Nuffield Foundation and the McDougall Trust. He has written commissioned policy reports for national and international organisations and given invited evidence to Parliamentary committees. He is currently a Fellow to the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation and Advisor to the Law Commission’s Review of Electoral Law. He is also on the Scientific Board for Electoral Expert Review.

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Democracy, at the touch of a button

Polling_Station_2008

Image: Man_vyi via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Licence

It’s been described as “astonishing”, “incredible” and “phenomenal.” But perhaps the best word for the 84.5% turnout in the Scottish independence referendum is “historic”. The figure was a record for any election or plebiscite held in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918.

Various explanations have been offered as to why the turnout was so high, from the unsurprising to the unexpected. But it has come at an important moment, when many people were becoming disaffected with the democratic process.

Just a month before the Scottish referendum, a vote to elect the police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands attracted just 10.3% of those eligible to vote. And in UK general elections, turnout has been falling since the 1950s, with the most recent figure a disappointing 65.1% in 2010.

Declining turnouts should ring alarm bells for democracies.  If they signal disenchantment or indifference, the results may not accurately reflect the will of the people and can lead to unequal representation.

Which is why there is increasing interest in the use of online tools to re-engage disaffected electorates. One such device is a Voter Advice Application (VAA), which poses a series of questions about election issues and uses the results to advise the user on which party is most closely aligned to their views. VAAs are relatively new to the UK, but in the Netherlands, the Stemwijzer VAA was consulted by 40% of the electorate in the run-up to the 2006 Dutch parliamentary election, and similar applications are now attracting growing numbers in Finland, Belgium, Germany and New Zealand.

Recently, Demos, the cross-party think tank joined forces with Bite the Ballot (a voter registration campaign) to develop a VAA for UK voters. The arguments for the move are persuasive. In 2007, two of five survey respondents in Switzerland said they were motivated to vote because of their use of a VAA, and in Finland VAA use boosted the likelihood of citizens voting by more than 20%. Demos has now launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund the design of its VAA, which will be focused on encouraging more young people to vote.

But political engagement is not just about what happens during election campaigns. And that’s where DemocracyOS may make a difference. Developed in Argentina, this online application translates issues into easy-to-understand language and allows people to informally vote on them.

One of the developers of DemocracyOS is political scientist Pia Mancini. In a recent TED Talk, she articulated the challenge facing democracy in the 21st century:

“My generation has been good at using technology to organise protests, that have overthrown totalitarian governments and changed unpopular laws. However we have not yet used the technology to change the system itself. If the internet is the new printing press, then what is democracy for the internet era?”

DemocracyOS presents one possible answer, and as a gesture of faith in the application, the developers formed a political party in Buenos Aires, with the promise that, if elected, their candidates would always vote along the same lines as the online voters from DemocracyOS.  While the party has so far failed to win a seat, interest in the application is growing. The federal government in Mexico is using the tool to gather feedback on a proposed public data policy, and in Tunisia, a non-government organization has adopted it in an effort to give the people a stronger voice. Back in Argentina, political parties are agreeing at least to take account of DemocracyOS votes.

One politician who has already demonstrated her confidence in online decision-making is Anne Hidalgo, the new mayor of Paris. Elected in March 2014, she recently gave residents the chance to vote on 15 environmental projects to improve the city. Over 40,000 voted, most of them online, and the winning projects include a €2m project to create “vegetation walls” to improve biodiversity, and mobile rubbish collection points to facilitate recycling.

The mayor set aside €426m for this first “participatory budget”, the largest sum of public money ever allocated for such a project, and she expressed confidence that it was a radical way give citizens a voice in their future:

“Democracy is not only a word in the dictionary, it’s something that must actually be practised.”

That said, even though anyone in Paris, regardless of age or nationality, was eligible to vote, only 4% of the population took part.

There are further stumbling blocks on the road to online democracy, such as concerns about security, verification, anonymity, and ensuring those with limited access to technology can participate. Since 2001, Estonia has held legally binding general elections using an internet-based voting system. Although the country’s election officials have declared the system to be a success, computer security experts have raised doubts, providing examples of breaches where votes were changed or erased.

In spite of these concerns, it’s likely that we’ll be hearing more of, and possibly making more use of, applications that help us re-engage with those making decisions in our name.

Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on democracy and representation. Items we’ve recently summarised for our database include:

Putting electronic voting under the microscope, IN Political Quarterly, Vol 85 No 2 Apr-Jun 2014, pp187-194

Should the UK lower the voting age to 16?

Engaging young voters with enhanced election information

Audit of political engagement 11: the 2014 report

The ‘personalisation’ of the European Elections: a half-hearted attempt to increase turnout and democratic legitimacy? (EPIN Paper No.37)

Elections: turnout (House of Commons Library standard note SN/SG/1467 )

How lowering the voting age to 16 can be an opportunity to improve youth political engagement: lessons learned from the Scottish independence referendum

N.B. Abstracts and full text access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.