As Americans, we are proud of the strides we have made over time to extend the voting franchise to all citizens, however halting these steps may have been. Yet in late July when I traveled to Brussels, Belgium for an international conference of election authorities (no taxpayer money involved) I was reminded that we have not cornered the market on inventiveness in elections. Even if other countries employ practices I would not adopt, we can learn from their efforts to maximize registration and voting.
We consider ourselves technologically advanced. We’ve moved out of the punch card and lever epoch into the touch screen and scanner era. States including Utah and Indiana now register voters online. And a new test program in Maryland and elsewhere will allow some military and overseas Americans to use the internet to vote.
But in Tasmania, where they worry less about the secrecy of the ballot, they’ve gone even further — allowing voting by cell-phone. Estonians voted from home, via computer, in their last national election. In an eerie scenario, some countries even use biometrics, capturing photos and fingerprints when they register people to vote.
There are other areas of contrast. While we regularly see American unions, churches and civic groups registering voters before every presidential contest, other countries are more efficient. There are no costly registration drives, because once you turn 18, you are automatically registered. Universal registration — which I believe is a good idea — is the norm in countries as diverse as Egypt and Belgium.
Voting is actually mandatory in dozens of nations — Tasmania, Chile and Argentina, to name a few — though registration itself is not always automatic or required. Still, mandatory voting begets higher turnout: reaching 85% and more in Tasmania and Belgium.
Here in the U.S., we may bristle at such regulation. Yet we require people to wear seatbelts and helmets, follow traffic laws and obey other rules for the common good. And mandatory voting does mean more citizen involvement. Such policies challenge us to consider what might bolster our meager voter turnout.
There are less coercive strategies, which use honey instead of vinegar to promote voter education and turnout. In Bhutan, authorities held a nationwide mock election just to teach people to vote. In New Zealand, an “Orange Boy” character, not unlike an Olympic mascot, publicized voting nationwide. In the Philippines, a band released a hit song about voting which grew so popular that voters sang it while waiting in line to cast ballots — something even MTV’s “Rock the Vote” hasn’t done. I’ve yet to hear Americans singing voting ditties at their precincts.
While not all of these policies would translate into good ideas stateside, they are still worth discussing. For whether we use cartoon characters, rock stars or technology to stimulate voting, for election authorities worldwide, clean elections and citizen participation are always the bottom line.