Elections are a hallmark of democracy. Voting in the U.S.? That’s complicated. The nation’s founders restricted the vote to those who held property or paid taxes, which effectively meant white men. Even now, decades after constitutional amendments enfranchised blacks and women, most felons can’t vote, most people have to work on Election Day, some states require advance registration to vote, people without proper identification might not have their vote counted and letting voters send their ballots by mail is highly contested, even during a pandemic. Leaving office in 2017, former President Barack Obama described the U.S. as “the only country in the advanced world that makes it harder to vote rather than easier.”

1. How many Americans vote?

The 136.8 million ballots tallied in the 2016 presidential election represented 56% of the 245.5 million voting-age Americans, according to the Pew Research Center. That put the U.S. 26th of 32 in voter participation among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations in their most recent national elections. A significant chunk of American adults, roughly one in three, weren’t registered to vote in 2016.

2. Why don’t more Americans vote?

Many reasons. For some, not voting is a statement of discontent with the system and the choices: One in four registered voters didn’t vote in 2016 because they didn’t like the candidates or campaign issues, Pew found, while others didn’t think their vote would make a difference or were too busy. Some states make it easier to vote by allowing registration and voting on the same day, with ample early voting and balloting-by-mail opportunities; others make it more difficult with requirements that some voter-rights advocates argue are onerous. Conventional wisdom holds that high turnout favors Democrats because it means more nonwhite and low-income voters are participating, though that doesn’t always hold true.

3. How do states limit voting?

From the 1890s to the 1960s, some states let people vote only if they first paid a poll tax, passed a literacy test or had a registered voter vouch for their good character. The common denominator was a desire to discourage blacks from voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed these practices. These days, the fight is largely over state laws requiring voters to show proper ID and efforts to remove voters from registration rolls if it’s been a while since they voted.

4. Why is this left to individual states to decide?

The Constitution says state legislatures decide the “times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives,” a principle extended to voting for president. But Congress “may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” That’s what it did with the Voting Rights Act. A key piece of that law required nine mostly Southern states, plus other counties and municipalities with a history of such practices, to get court or Justice Department approval for any proposed change in voting rules. In 2013, the Supreme Court threw out that requirement, declaring that the country’s progress in overcoming racial discrimination in voting meant it no longer was warranted. That ruling opened the door to a wave of new state laws that voter advocates say are designed to limit turnout.

5. How many states have done that?

Since 2010, 25 states have enacted measures “making it harder to vote,” including restrictions on registration, cutbacks to early voting and strict photo ID laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

6. How do voter ID laws work?

In the seven states with the strictest laws, a voter must present a driver’s license or other official identification document with a photo on it; those lacking a photo ID may cast only a provisional ballot and then must take additional steps after Election Day, such as bring acceptable ID to an election office, for that vote to be counted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Advocates of such laws, who tend to be Republicans, say that if you need to prove who you are to board a plane, you should have to do the same to vote. Opponents of such laws say they discourage voting especially by poor people, who often don’t have photo ID, and that in-person voter impersonation on Election Day is exceedingly rare.

7. How is voter registration being targeted?

States keep their registration rolls accurate by periodically removing, or “purging,” the names of people who have died, moved or become ineligible to vote. But the practice in states including Georgia and Wisconsin has drawn legal challenges on grounds it goes too far and prevents eligible people from voting or is a form of voter suppression. Some states have also imposed restrictions on voter-registration drives, including requiring training beforehand.

8. How could voting be made easier?

Periodic efforts to move Election Day to the weekend, or make it a holiday, have failed. (While much of the world holds elections on weekends, the U.S. still does it on Tuesdays, which was seen as most convenient for 19th century Americans.) But 40 states now allow early voting, which means they start opening polling places days or even weeks before the election; in more than half of those states, the early-voting period includes at least one Saturday or Sunday, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Five states accept mail-in ballots for all elections, while many others are loosening rules for absentee voting by mail this November due to the pandemic. And many states now allow felons to re-register to vote, or to apply for restoration of their voting rights, after their incarceration ends.

9. Why not allow voting online?

A dozen nations including Australia, Canada, France and India have experimented with online voting since 2000, but only Estonia has fully adopted it. Some U.S. states let military personnel and citizens who are overseas vote by web or app, but overall, the U.S. has moved in the opposite direction, toward having paper ballots or paper receipts that could be audited in case of doubts over an election’s outcome. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded in a 2018 study that “no known technology guarantees the secrecy, security, and verifiability of a marked ballot transmitted over the internet.”

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