Local News
2:01 pm
Tue May 20, 2014

4 Things That Could Improve Voter Turnout in Kentucky

Voters at Jeffersontown High School in 2012.
Credit Joseph Lord/WFPL News

Today, Kentuckians choose the Democratic and Republican candidates for U.S. Senate, state legislature, and a host of local offices.

The victors in some of today's primaries are a foregone conclusion, perhaps. But other races—Louisville Metro Council District 9, for example—are quite competitive. Still, state election officials expect less than 30 percent of registered voters to show up to the polls.

Could anything be done to improve those numbers?

Trey Grayson has spent a lot of time thinking about this topic. He's a former Kentucky secretary of state—the state's top election officials—and he's currently the director of Harvard University's Institute of Politics. He was also a member of President Obama's Commission on Election Administration. (He was also a Republican candidate for Senate in 2010.)

We chatted today about ideas to improve voter turnout. Here are some of Grayson's thoughts:

1. Allow early voting for everyone.

Kentucky allows absentee voting but requires applicants to meet certain requirements. Grayson said lifting restrictions on early voting can "slightly" improve turnout, especially in elections where a president isn't being decided.

Early voting allows people more flexibility to work in voting on their schedules, Grayson said. This wouldn't necessarily make non-voters into voters, he added, but people aren't inundated with elections in non-presidential election years, and they're less likely to prioritize it.

Giving people more time to get to the polls could improve turnout.

2. Online Registration

Grayson didn't mention online voting, but he said allowing voters to register or update registration online could lead to more people making it to the polls.

It would also save state and local governments money.

First off,  more people would likely end up registered voters.

And the ability to update registration information online would also lead to fewer problems when people show up to vote, Grayson said. That, in turn, leads to shorter lines at the polls—and less potential that voters will walk away from a long line when they arrive at their polling station.

Technological checks—such as matching drivers' license data with registration information—would protect against fraud, he added. Some states allow same-day registration, of which Grayson is wary (and which Kentucky does not allow).  He argues that online registration, part of the election administration commission's recommendations, would address the same concerns.

“If we can make it online where you can update or register, a lot of the same folks who would come in on the same day would register," Grayson argues, noting that the idea has bipartisan support.

Related: Kentucky State Legislature Primaries to Watch

Related: Louisville Primaries to Watch

3. Analytics For Polling Station

Polling stations should collect more data on when voters vote and where they do it, Grayson said. And then they should put that deep-dive information to good use.

Grayson said county clerks' offices could shift resources to different polling stations depending on when their busiest times have historically hit. 

For example, poll workers at a station where mornings are busiest could later be shifted to a different station where afternoons are likely to have long lines.

4. Better Messaging

This one is simplest, perhaps, but Grayson said it could have an impact:

The people who are encouraging potential voters to vote should stop talking such much about low turnout and relying on "every vote counts" arguments.

Grayson said research shows that these arguments reinforce negative behavior.

That is: If people hear that few others are voting, they're less likely to prioritize it—perhaps they assume that if no one else things the election is a big deal, they shouldn't either, Grayson said.

"It's actually better to say, 'Your neighbors are voting—you should too," he said.

"We want to be like our peers."

He said the simple act of referring to people as "voters" can help—because voting is what voters do.

Another possible tactic  governments, non-profits and candidates can take is to ask people what plans they've made to vote, he said. Simply asking the question prods people to plan their voting.

This wouldn't boost turnout by 20 percent, he said.  But it could help.