Election reforms aim to draw young voters

Friday, October 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:53 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

White male property owners casting their votes orally and enjoying free-flowing alcohol is the Missouri Election Day scene set by George Caleb Bingham in his 1852 painting “The County Election.”

If Bingham were to paint the picture today, it might include computerized voting machines and Election Day voter registration, both among recent reforms that have transformed the election process in some states.

Some more recent election reforms are credited with helping to re-energize the declining turnout among young voters.

“Young people benefit the most from voting reforms, especially absentee voting, because they’re moving around so much,” said Rob Richie, executive director of Maryland’s Center for Voting and Democracy.

Recent reforms that may help the young, transient population to vote include no-excuse absentee voting, mail-in voting, Election Day registration and mailed sample ballots and notices of polling places, according to a recent study by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.

Missouri, which has a younger voter turnout that is lower than average, has enacted only one of these reforms.

All Missouri counties send out notices of polling places to registered voters. Boone County also sends out sample ballots but is not required by the state to do so.

Ever since the voting age for all states was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971, young-voter turnout in Missouri has declined 21 percent compared with a national decline of 13 percent, according to the Maryland study.

Thirty-six percent of 18- to 24-year-old Missouri residents voted in the 2000 presidential election, a substantially lower turnout than the national average of 42 percent and about half has much as the turnout among Missouri residents age 25 and over, according to the study.

The study suggests that some election reforms have had a positive impact on young-voter turnout in other states.

States that had Election Day registration for presidential elections had a 14 percent higher youth turnout than states without it . States with no-excuse absentee voting had a 4 percent higher youth voter turnout during midterm congressional elections.

“A lot of these states that have done these reforms are ones that have really been working on making voting easier,” said Carrie Donovan, youth director at the research center.

It is debated whether Missouri’s relative lack of election reform contributes to its poor youth turnout.

“You can not say Missouri is worse than others because of administrative factors, you have to look at what is going on in that race,” said Wendy Noren, Boone County clerk. “Each election has its own dynamic, that’s the problem with a lot of these studies.”

Noren thinks the closeness of the races is the No. 1 factor affecting voter turnout.

“In 1992, youth turnout was higher than in 1972,” she said.

The spread in 1992 between incumbent George Bush and Bill Clinton was 6 percentage points, versus 23 percentage points in 1972 between incumbent Richard Nixon and George McGovern.

Noren says she welcomes election reforms. “I’m all for things that make the process more convenient, but making it more convenient costs, and nobody seems to want to pay for it,” she said.

The Missouri Secretary of State’s office said the state could not enact early voting in part because of funding problems.

Both Missouri secretary of state candidates, Catherine Hanaway and Robin Carnahan, favor early voting and no-excuse absentee voting.

John Petrocik, professor and chair of MU’s political science department, was cautious in his assessment of some of the more progressive reforms happening in other states.

“It depends on where you do it. For mail-in voting and Election Day registration, we need some way to make sure elections won’t be stolen, and there are some places in where it could be stolen,” he said. “In some places such reforms are OK, in other places — in Louisiana, for example — it’s ripe for corruption. Oregon does it pretty well.”

Oregon allows unrestricted absentee voting as well as mail-in voting. The state’s youth voter turnout in 2000 was 47 percent, about one-third more than Missouri’s rate.

Mail-in voting andother more progressive reforms such as Election Dayregistration are unlikely to be implemented in Missouri in the near future. But with both secretary of state candidates in support of no-excuse absentee and early voting, those reforms could come sooner for Missouri voters.

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