Rhode Island should work harder to get out the vote

PROVIDENCE, RI – Tuesday is Election Day, America's grand tribute to democracy. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders why Rhode Island is so far behind most of the country in promoting voter turnout.

The 1960 presidential election remains etched in American political annals. It signaled the ascension of two young World War II veterans to the pinnacle of national leadership. One of those candidates, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy, would make history by ending the exclusion of Roman Catholics from the Oval Office.

The grand chronicler of that campaign was Theodore White, a Boston native whose book, `The Making of the President 1960' would win the Pulitzer Prize. White's romantic view of that campaign as a sprawling national quest fueled by novelistic characters informs still our national political psyche.

Election Day, for White, was a day of great national stirring, a ``free choice by a free people, one by one, in secrecy, choosing a single national leader.''

Television was the new medium that year; 1960 marked the first televised presidential debates in U.S. history. In 1950, only about 10 percent of American households had televisions but by 1960 that number jumped to 90 percent. For the first time, candidates could speak directly to voters in their living rooms.

There were only three networks in those days of black-and-white TV. Six decades later, time has marched on, there are hundreds of television channels, the Internet has revolutionized communications and voters get news from hand-held phones.

Most states have modernized their laws to make voting more convenient to 21st Century work schedules and lifestyles. Thirty-two states have embraced early voting and 27 states allow no-excuse absentee ballots. Two states, Oregon and Washington State, even have mail-in balloting for all elections. Other states, including two in New England, New Hampshire and Maine, allow same-day voter registration.

But not Rhode Island. Our state conducts elections in pretty much the same manner as we did in the 1960, except that we now count votes electronically rather than with mechanical voting machines.

Rhode Island is behind the times in just about every change in voting procedures that would make voting more accessible and perhaps increase our dismal voter turnout rates. Rhode Island doesn't allow any of these new reforms, such as early voting and same-day registration.

The sad truth is, the only major change in voting that the General Assembly has made in recent years is one that will restrict, rather than open up, voting. That is the imposition of the voter identification law that will be used Tuesday for the first time in a presidential election in our state's history.

The voter ID law is supposed to combat fraud, but there was no evidence in Rhode Island of any violations of the voter impersonation laws that the voter ID laws deal with.

This solution in search of a problem will do nothing more than clog the polling places, slow voting and cause longer lines. Rhode also hangs on to the `master lever,' a relic of urban Democratic machines.

Our state and nation were different in 1960. Women were relegated to the kitchen, African-Americans could not vote in most of the apartheid South and the Cold War atmosphere sent school children scrambling under their desks in nuclear attack drills.

Yet, the World War II generation that sacrificed and shed blood for democracy took voting seriously; the nation has never since equaled the high 1960 presidential turnout of more than 63 percent.

Rhode Island sometimes seems a state that clings to nothing so tightly as the status quo. Voting laws that lag behind most other states is yet another example. Voting reforms are not that expensive, given the context of our multi-billion dollar state budget.

Tuesday is still a day of great national import. Once again we gather to choose our leaders. The polling booth is arguably the only place left in our nation where every eligible citizen, regardless of social or economic status, is absolutely equal.

Tuesday is also a day when the politicians are out glad-handing at the precincts, making their 11th hour pitches. So when you run into one of these grinning General Assembly aspirants, ask the candidate why our state lags so far behind the rest of the country in promoting voter participation. It doesn't have to be Theodore White's- or your grandfather's - election process.

Scott MacKay commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics' blog at RIPR.org

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