Why do some Americans not vote

Below we publish an article by Michael W. Traugott on the election process in the United States.

In general, American voters have more opportunities to vote than most citizens of other democracies. Some Americans have five to six opportunities per year to vote in elections, with different offices at different levels of government to choose from. Because the federal and state governments have separate powers under the federal system, there are a number of federal and local elections on Election Day in the United States. There are separate procedures for each of these elections.

In the United States' political system, many offices are held through elections. In addition, numerous things, such as financial support for education or services at the state and local level, such as the creation of parks and the construction of highways, are decided by popular vote. More and more political decisions are made through referendums or popular initiatives. Some political scientists believe that the frequency of elections has contributed to the decline in voter turnout in the United States over the past 50 years. Most of the party candidates are elected by the Americans in primary elections. These are political party events organized by election officers.

The electoral process

Because the United States has many local elections, there are thousands of election officers who are responsible for organizing and conducting the elections, including the counting and official confirmation of the results. These polling officers have important and multi-faceted tasks - setting election dates, confirming candidates' eligibility, registering eligible voters and creating electoral rolls, selecting voting facility, drafting ballot papers, and mobilizing huge numbers of volunteers to conduct elections on election day, to cast votes count and confirm the results.

Traditionally, American elections rarely have particularly close results. Most of the positions available for election are those at the municipal level. The boundaries of the constituencies are often set by the ruling party. Traditional voting behavior serves as the basis, so that the election of the respective party is considered certain. However, there have been significant exceptions recently. The result of the US presidential election in 2000 - that protracted contest to determine a winner in the tightest presidential election in American history - first made many Americans aware of administrative problems.

Elections in the United States consist of two phases. There is no national electoral register, so citizens must first qualify for registration. The registration of citizens takes place at the place of residence; so you have to register again if you move. The registration system was introduced to prevent fraud. However, the registration process differs from state to state. In the past, registration procedures were sometimes used to exclude certain groups of voters from voting. Efforts have recently been made to simplify the registration requirements. The 1993 National Voter Registration Act ("Motor Voter" Act) allows citizens to register while visiting authorities, for example when applying for a new driver's license.

One of the most important tasks of the official election officers is to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote is on the electoral roll - but no one who does not belong there. In general, local election workers try to have as many citizens as possible on the lists, including those who have not voted recently, in order to avoid the risk of accidentally removing voters. If people come to vote whose name is not on the lists, they will now receive a provisional ballot paper to cast their vote. Your eligibility will then be checked before your votes are counted.

The role of the election officer

In the United States, an election is an enormous administrative burden - it is carried out locally with a fixed budget and is intended to determine precisely and in good time where the sympathies of the voters lie. So the election officers - usually county or city employees - have a grueling task. You are responsible for registering voters throughout the year and determining who is eligible to vote in which election. They also draft the ballot papers for the elections, ensuring that all approved candidates are recorded on the lists and that all issues to be decided are correctly formulated. They must also try to make the ballot as simple and clear as possible.

There is currently no nationwide standard for ballot papers or voting facilities. Ordinarily, pollers have to provide multilingual ballot papers, sometimes in different versions. In some counties, the order of candidates and parties must be listed at random. Ultimately, it is up to the municipal election workers to decide which machines will be used to count the votes. Of course, the ballot papers have to be compatible with these machines. In response to the problems that arose in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, Congress passed law that grants states and counties financial aid to use the most modern and reliable electoral processes available.

Between the elections, the electoral officers are responsible for storing and maintaining the electoral facility. These tasks are usually carried out by contractors, not the normal election workers. One of the most difficult jobs for election workers is hiring and training the large number of workers who are specially hired for election day, when they work between 10 and 15 hours.

If equipment or ballot forms change between elections, this training becomes even more of a challenge. The logistics involved in moving the machines and hiring and training election workers are sometimes so time consuming that eligibility verification is left to volunteers provided by the major political parties. As the volunteers are usually representatives of the political parties, it is inevitable that there will sometimes be disputes over the conduct of some local elections.

The ballot

The second phase of the election is public access to the vote. Most eligible voters cast their votes at a polling station near where they live. Nationwide, however, there are considerable differences in the individual electoral districts, both in terms of geographic size and the number of people who can vote and who are entitled to vote.

Decisions about the type of facilities and voting papers are made at the local level, as the systems are also funded from this level. Consequently, the type of electoral procedure as well as the type of institutions and their condition depend on the socio-economic conditions and tax revenue of the respective districts. Since schools, police, fire brigade, parks and leisure facilities are also financed with the municipal taxpayers' money, investments in electoral technology have often been neglected.

There are a variety of voting facilities and devices in the United States, and technology in this area is constantly changing. Today, voting is rarely done with paper ballot papers with the appropriate candidate ticked, as was common in the past. For many of the computerized systems, however, paper ballots are still required in which circles are filled in or lines are connected. These ballot papers are then mechanically scanned in order to register the votes.

Many counties still use "lever" machines. Voters pull this little lever to mark the name of their preferred candidate or a cause they want to support. At the end, their votes are registered by operating a large lever. These machines have not been manufactured for over 30 years, making them particularly difficult and costly to maintain. As a result, they are gradually being phased out.

A machine that works with "punched cards" is also very widespread. The ballot is either on a card that is punched or punched next to the candidate's name, or the card is inserted into a holder that depicts the ballot and then punched. This form of ballot paper caused controversy in the Florida presidential election counts in 2000 and is therefore also being withdrawn from circulation.

The current trend is toward the use of electronic recording devices with computerized touch screens that are similar to automated banking machines. Although there is much discussion about computer or internet dialing to simplify the process - and one of these systems has already been tried in an Arizona area code - security experts are still refining these systems so they are not yet very common .

A fundamental change in the ballot has occurred in the last few years because the voters received the voting documents before the election day. This trend started with postal ballot papers for voters who know they will not be home (that is, at the polling place) on election day. Some constituencies have continuously liberalized this regulation so that citizens can now be registered as "permanently absent" and have a voting slip sent to their home by post.

Another new regulation is the "early election", in which voting machines are set up in shopping centers and other public facilities up to three weeks before election day. Citizens can choose when it suits them best. In some states, citizens can vote by mail. In Oregon, all citizens receive a ballot paper 20 days before election day, which they can either mail back or hand in at a designated location. Other locations - such as Seattle and King Counties, Washington State - have opted for mail voting, but neighboring counties continue to use electronic recorders or punch cards. Across the United States, more than a fifth of the electorate now casts a vote before what is known as "Election Day."

Vote counting

With the percentage of citizens voting before Election Day growing, it would be more appropriate to call the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November - America's traditional Presidential Election Day - not "Election Day" but "Counting Day." Although voting before polling day is becoming increasingly popular, votes are not counted before polling night in order to avoid public information about which candidate is in the lead before polling stations close. This type of advance information could influence the style of the campaign, electoral team efforts and turnout.

The 2000 presidential election taught us many important lessons about counting votes. According to the ruling of the United States Supreme Court, the main problem with the controversial election was the application of uniform standards in counting different types of ballot papers. In some constituencies, absentee ballots are treated differently than those handed in on the spot. As a result, several different calculations may have to be made in the future. Ballots from absent voters are not counted in some counties if their number is less than the difference between the two leading candidates.

In the 2000 election, it was found that voting machines behave like other electromechanical devices: they are designed with fault tolerance, but they require regular maintenance in order to function as accurately as possible. If the outcome of the election is very tight, the counting devices may come up with slightly different results if the votes are counted more than once.

If a nationwide election is decided by a vote difference of less than 0.5 percent in the direct election and the election result of a state - in this case Florida - out of a total of 5.8 million votes cast for George W. Bush and Al Gore If only a difference of 202 was found, the calculation methods and devices could come under criticism. A large part of the votes were cast in Florida using punched cards. One point of criticism was the maintenance of the machines, another the quality of the ballot papers, which must allow the voter to punch legible holes in them. In some places, the design of the ballot papers created confusion, especially among older voters. This could have resulted in some voters inadvertently voting for a candidate they did not want to vote for.

The close election result in Florida and the fact that Florida was the last state to complete the vote count meant that both Bush and Gore's campaign teams focused on that state in the weeks following election day. Since the American electoral system works on a municipal basis and the electoral college awards the candidate the respective votes from the state according to the winner-take-all principle (system that awards the election winner all votes), both sides sued in Florida courts. Each team selected the voting locations from which it hoped to obtain the most favorable decision on the legal issues to be clarified and the best chance of contesting certain votes. Neither team requested a re-count of votes for the entire state. Eventually the case went to the United States Supreme Court for final decision. In its judgment, the latter decided that the recount should be ended and that the original confirmation of the election result by the state election officer would remain valid. So the 25 votes of the electorate went to George W. Bush, he received the majority of the votes of the electoral college and secured the presidency.

The reform movement

One clear lesson from the 2000 election was that Florida's election administration, balloting, and vote counting problems could have occurred, at least in part, in almost every constituency in the United States.Although this probably would not have had the same consequences, since an election is rarely as tightly decided as the 2000 presidential election, several problem areas were highlighted. Several studies were commissioned and various panels consulted experts on the need for reform. Although there were elements of party politics in both the review and the reform proposals that were ultimately submitted, the prevailing view was that action was needed in the run-up to the 2004 elections.

In 2002, the 107th Congress passed a law that unified the electoral process (Help America Vote Act - HAVA). There are several notable elements to this law: First, the government made money available to individual states and counties to replace obsolete punch card and lever selection machines. On the other hand, the law created an electoral assistance commission to provide technical support to the local electoral officers and to introduce generally applicable standards for electoral institutions. The electoral assistance commission will propose voluntary guidelines for electoral systems as well as for testing and certification of hardware and software for electoral systems. The Commission's remit also includes the creation of research programs. The purpose of this is to examine: the construction of voting machines and the design of ballot papers, methods of registration, methods for preliminary elections, ways to prevent fraud, procedures for hiring and training election workers, educational programs for voters, procedures aimed at the counting processes for federal offices in the individual states to be made more uniform and alternative methods of holding elections for federal offices. HAVA is an important departure from the previous position of the American government, which in the past was unwilling to intervene in matters that were previously considered to be municipal tasks. However, after the 2000 election, especially after the Florida vote dispute, this procedural reform helped restore American faith in their electoral system. And the associated costs are low when you consider that elections are the legal basis of a functioning democracy.

America Service, February 24, 2004
Embassy of the United States of America, Berlin, Germany