Tom Campbell: Claiming our right to vote

Published 6:33 pm Friday, August 12, 2016

With fewer than 90 days before the Nov. 8 elections, it is fitting to consider who can and will vote and what can be done to encourage voter turnout.

Article VI of the North Carolina Constitution speaks to who can vote. Any natural born or naturalized citizen over 18 who has resided in our state for more than one year and in the voting district 30 days prior to an election is entitled to vote in any election in our state. The Constitution further stipulates that the General Assembly can enact laws governing the registration of eligible voters, providing that they must be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language. It disqualifies convicted felons from registering. 

Our legislature passed sweeping election reform laws in 2013 requiring, among other things, voter identification. It eliminated same-day voting, out-of-precinct voting and reduced the number of days for early voting. Legal challenges to these reforms are ongoing; however, recent federal court rulings overturned most of them on the grounds they restricted voting, especially among minority groups.

Who will vote is another matter. In North Carolina only 65 percent of registered voters have cast ballots in recent presidential election years, far better than the national average, where only 53.6 percent of eligible citizens voted in 2012.

In a recent CNN program, “Fareed Zakaria Global Public Square,” Zakaria reported Turkey has an 84 percent voter turnout, Belgium scores 87 percent and Australia has 90 percent turnout. They are among the 26 nations where voting is compulsory. Research indicates citizens in these nations are better informed about candidates and issues.

Zakaria postulated that perhaps it is time to consider compulsory voting in America. The backlash to this proposal was immediate and negative from those saying the last thing our country needs is another government mandate. While compulsory voting might improve participation, it is problematic that Congress would ever pass such a proposal. Nevertheless, we should consider what could be done to improve voting percentages.

One simple first step would be to follow Oregon’s example by automatically registering someone to vote when they obtain a driver’s license, register for government assistance or get a state ID.

Why do we vote on Tuesdays, when most have to work? This archaic 1845 law ruled out Sundays because it was the Sabbath day and Wednesdays because it was market day. Why not change Election Day to Saturdays when more people aren’t working? We could experiment with options like allowing workers a half day off from jobs, providing free transportation to the polls or even giving incentives, like a tax credit. We could try online voting and other innovations.

There are some who appear to want to keep others away from the polls, but we fought to get the right to vote and we should fight just as hard to encourage maximum voter participation. The best choices are made when the most voices are heard.

Tom Campbell, former assistant state treasurer, is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly TV program.