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An oddity of the Texas legislature is that two thirds of its lawmakers must be present to pass laws. Another is that it can meet for no more than 140 days at a time, only in odd numbered years.

Although they hold a comfortable majority, Republicans are dismayed they need Democrat members present for what they deem most pressing business, to enact new voting regulations, which few doubt are aimed at making it hard for Democrat leaning African Americans to vote.

Understandably unkeen on this legislative programme, Democrat lawmakers chartered aeroplanes to take them, en masse, to Washington DC, where they planned to hunker down until the proposed laws can no longer be passed. Annoyed by this, Greg Abbott the Republican governor, threatened to send the police after them. Texas, alas, is not alone among US states, mostly with Republican majorities, attempting to skew voting rules to favour those already in power. Texas and other states now under the spotlight; this is a good time to question existing election provisions everywhere and ask if they can be improved.

Low turnout

Many democracies worldwide lament chronically low electoral turnout, often as low as 55% to 60% of eligible voters. Analysts tend to attribute this to apathy, borne out somewhat by slightly higher turnout for local elections. Even then, it is only marginally higher.

Compulsory voting can boost turnout, but it raises questions about personal freedom and cannot guarantee everyone votes; anyone can still turn up at polls then spoil their ballot. That few actually do, suggests that apathy is not the main reason for low turnout. If it were, then Texan and other Republicans might be happy to rely on apathy rather than tilt voting rules to stay in office.

Skewed representation

If all sectors of the population were equally likely to register and vote, with similar electoral preferences, manipulating rules would not matter. They are not, middle aged and senior, rural and suburban, often conservative leaning citizens are more likely to vote than younger, urban, more progressive voters, with the result that the voting public is often far from representative of the overall population. It is not always true that non-voters don’t care; it could be that many would vote but find it hard to do so.

You can see why; in many advanced democracies, voters can vote in person at a single, designated polling place, typically close to where they live. If they know they will be away from home that day, they can usually apply to vote by post or delegate a trusted adult to vote for them. Neither is satisfactory, with often cumbersome procedures that must be completed well in advance.

This puts many people, especially those working with young families, at a disadvantage, all the more so if elections are held on work days. Some, perhaps many, would find it much easier if they could vote, either online or at more convenient polling places, for example near where they work.

In the past, this might have been difficult to organise, but with online communication and data management, maintaining a register of voters, confirming identity and ensuring they vote once only is hardly beyond most governments’ capabilities. There is, thus, no real reason why citizens should not cast their vote anywhere there is an internet connection. To illustrate, Australians have, since early in the twentieth century, enjoyed the facility of voting on election day at any polling place in Australia or beforehand at designated early polling places. Those outside of Australia on election day can vote at their nearest diplomatic mission any time from two weeks before the election. This facility can be seen as a quid pro quo of compulsory voting, but there is no obvious reason why it cannot work in all democracies.

It is worth a try

We often read about how democracy is facing challenges not seen for nearly a century. One means of encouraging trust and engagement is making it easier for all eligible voters to exercise their right. This would not itself meet existential challenges to democracy we now lament, but even if all it does is improve voter turnout it will surely strengthen democracy’s credibility. Anyway, it can hardly do any harm – despite what Mr Abbott might say.

Featured image by Element5 Digital on Pexels.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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