This year, like every election year, I have students asking me: "Why is voting so hard?"
My initial response is: "It’s not hard at all!" That answer is basically accurate, as the high levels of turnout among the older segments of our population demonstrate. Still, I can’t deny that there are reasons why voting nonetheless so often seems that way to my students.
Indeed, even experts like me can get mixed-up when answering questions for students and others, especially when mundane electoral procedures unexpectedly become subject to intense partisan argument, and contradictory information (or plain misinformation) surrounds us.
In the past month, I’ve twice found myself getting basic things wrong, as when I distinguished between the level of voter security provided by signing in at a polling station when casting an in-person vote vs. signing the back of a mail-in ballot’s envelope. (The actual correct answer: There’s no difference at all.)
If someone who has voted in every election for 30 years can get confused, perhaps we shouldn’t blame young people too much for feeling the same.
Who can we blame for the confusion then? There are culprits aplenty. But rather than going after political or partisan targets, I would suggest thinking about the structure of elections themselves.
Historically, the power to organize elections in the United States has been held by the 50 different states. Important pieces of legislation and Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s nationalized some aspects of voting in America — but mostly our country remains a patchwork of different registration deadlines, ballot access rules, voting procedures, and more.
Again, it’s not hard to learn the rules and deadlines where you live, and so these differences aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it’s reasonable that the different states take primary responsibility for managing democracy within their own political cultures.
Those distinct political cultures, however, no longer reflect many voters’ attitudes. Between the centralization of campaign fundraising, the speed and ease of networking technology, and the collapse of local journalism, citizens now often end up approaching elections with only the national context in mind. State and local political candidates know this, and thus they increasingly rely on national partisan rhetoric, perpetuating the shift.
This nationalization of our electoral thinking makes certain voting restrictions hard to justify. For example, why shouldn’t a registered voter, casting their ballot on Election Day, be able to do so at any polling location in the nation, in the same way anyone with a valid credit card can shop at any store in the country? The technology would be complicated, but since systems already exist to recognize your Visa card anywhere, national voter recognition should be possible as well.
There have been some efforts to address these changing electoral perspectives, like a new law that should allow in-person Kansas voters to use polling stations besides their assigned ones. But that’s a tiny, county-by-county change. As electoral rules are written by those who have managed to get elected under them, the incentive for larger changes isn’t strong.
In the end, I tell my students that voting, despite our many instantaneous national connections, will likely remain an inconsistent state-based patchwork. Clearing up any confusion which that contributes to is the responsibility of everyone who takes their citizenship seriously — which of course, includes the responsibility of checking to make sure we have our facts right first.
Russell Arben Fox, Ph.D., runs the history and politics major and the honors program at Friends University in Wichita.