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Democracy for Busy People

Kevin Elliott was raised by a single mother with no time for politics. He was thinking about her when he wrote Democracy for Busy People, a book that suggests many ways to boost voter turnout. Already, he notes, Virginia allows early voting and same-day voter registration, but in some states residents are registered automatically unless they opt out.

Kevin Elliott is a political scientist who lectures at Yale University and authored a book called Democracy for Busy People.
Yale University
Kevin Elliott is a political scientist who lectures at Yale University and authored a book called Democracy for Busy People.

"Basically everyday interactions with state governments will result in your information being transmitted to the electoral authority, and then they’ll add your name to the rolls," he explains.

And in some countries, voting is mandatory at times when people are likely to be free. In Australia, for example, Election Day is on a weekend, and local groups entice voters with hotdogs.

"So it will be kind of like a big barbeque which will surround the polling place, and so voting becomes almost like a little festival thing," Elliott says. "It’s what you do on Election Day. You take your kids, and you get your democracy sausage and you go and you vote."

He thinks we should consolidate local, state and national elections.

"We have way too many elections in the United States – often for minor offices, often during times of year that no one is really thinking about politics. When elections are put at different times, that allows very small electorates to make very important, consequential decisions."

Virginia doesn’t limit campaign contributions, but Elliott says we should.

"We should always be looking for ways to make sure that the widest possible public has the most power. Campaign finance puts power in the hands of a few."

And he suggests we follow the lead of New York State, where smaller political parties can nominate mainstream candidates to promote their issues without asking people to cast a ballot for someone who has no chance of winning.

"So you could vote for the Democratic nominee but on the line of the Working Families Party, and that allows that party to say: ‘People care about the issues our party is emphasizing. Sure, we ended up supporting this Democratic candidate, but it signals what the voters care about.’

He’s not a fan of requiring voter identification, noting cases of voter fraud are rare.

"Voter identification attempts to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist and can often be used in ways that will make it harder for perfectly valid voters to vote. Some states will accept, for instance, a paper hunting license but will not allow a student identification card from even a state school."

And he thinks the tendency of candidates to begin campaigning for the next election the day after declaring victory takes time away from governing.

"Office holders who have just won an election often feel like they immediately have to continue to raise money, comporting themselves in office as if they were campaigning."

That’s why some countries have very strict limits on when political figures can begin a campaign.

"You’re not allowed to be like, ‘Vote for me in two years. It will be like 30 days, 60 days, 90 days before an election is the only time that you can run campaign advertisements," Elliott says.

That reduces the risk that voters will get sick of politics and opt to ignore the whole process. Two more suggestions -- have plenty of convenient locations where people can vote and consider following India’s lead with mobile polling places. Kevin Elliott is a lecturer at Yale University and the author of Democracy for Busy People. He’ll speak Friday at noon, February 2nd at Bond House, 600 Brandon Avenue in Charlottesville.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief