the difficulty of voting is a feature, not a bug

This graph, derived from CIRCLE’s recent polls of young adults, shows that most under-30s do not know three basic facts about voting laws in their own state: when they have to register, whether they can vote early, and whether they will need specific forms of government-issued photo identification to vote.

The United States is very rare in placing the responsibility to register on citizens instead of the government, and unique in running 50 different electoral processes, managed by partisan officials, that change constantly. Young Americans must also navigate the electoral system alone to a degree that was not true 35 or 100 years ago. Then, grassroots political parties, schools, unions, and churches had incentives to teach them to vote, and their parents were probably habitual voters. Now, voting may be rare in their homes, and no big institution really cares whether they vote–apart from privately funded campaigns that are proud (especially on the Democratic side) of their sophistication in micro-targeting only the likely voters and “persuadables.”

I think the public’s support for photo ID laws is at least partly genuine, reflecting a sincere belief that the electoral system is vulnerable to fraud. I disagree, because substantial numbers of eligible citizens lack the approved IDs, and showing photo ID at the polls does not prevent the pervasive forms of fraud. But in any case, IDs represent just one new layer of costs, inconveniences, complications, and barriers to voting. The overall result–usually the lowest turnout of any real democracy in the world–is engineered, not accidental.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.