Bipartisan panel warms to weekend voting

Greg Nash

Republican and Democratic lawmakers agreed Wednesday that weekend voting could help increase voter turnout in elections.

During The Hill's Voting in America event, sponsored by advocacy group Why Tuesday?, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) called weekend voting a “practical” and “common-sense solution” to ensure that hard-working people have the opportunity to vote, boosting turnout.

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He was joined by former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who suggested the Saturday voting model has worked well in states such as Louisiana. “We don't encourage people to vote enough,” Lott said.

Speakers discussed the issue in the immediate aftermath of House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric CantorThree strategies to help Clinton build 'Team of Teams' David Brat may run for Senate if Kaine becomes VP The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE's (R-Va.) shocking defeat, in which turnout was low in Tuesday's primary.

Several speakers said low turnout makes distorted results easier, and Larson suggested Cantor would have won if GOP primary voters had been allowed to vote over the weekend, thus producing higher turnout.

The lawmakers and academics at the event debated ways to fix what they see as a broken voting system.

During President Obama's first election and reelection, voter turnout ticked up slightly to 57 percent of eligible voters. That's far short of other countries, such as Australia, where voting is mandatory and turnout is above 90 percent. Other countries, such as India, hold the polls open for weeks to give voters more time to cast ballots.

Norman Ornstein, co-founder of Why Tuesday?, made the case for boosting high turnout, although he conceded that it did not always mean better government, quipping, “Kim Jong-un just got 100 percent turnout."

Several speakers from the left and right agreed that weekend voting would help.

“The inconvenience of Tuesday is the No. 1 reason why people say they don't vote,” said William Wachtel, co-founder of Why Tuesday?.

But that's far from the only reason why U.S turnout is low, the panelists said. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the electoral system structurally discourages people from voting because redistricting has made districts so safe for one party or the other that many voters in them know their vote is wasted.

“Unfortunately, they've become very cynical and they don't think it makes a difference,” Hoyer said. "There's too wide a sentiment that my vote does not make a difference, when there are many examples that your vote does make a difference," he added.

Others speakers criticized voter identification laws as suppressing voting. Janai Nelson, associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said minority voters are less likely to have photo identification and that requiring it is a barrier to turnout.

But other speakers rejected the suggestion that IDs are unnecessary, saying that without them it was very easy for votes to be stolen.

“I think there is fraud,” Lott said.

John Fund, a columnist for National Review Online, called the system “sloppy and primitive” and said it was an established fact that 1,200 convicted felons voted in Minnesota in the election that Sen. Al FrankenAl FrankenParty unity overcomes chaos...and the Bernie-or-Bust crowd The Hill's 12:30 Report Podesta: 'We need to move on and consolidate around Hillary' MORE (D-Minn.) won by only a couple hundred votes.

“We have no idea how many people are cheating at the polls because it is so easy to get away with it,” Fund said. “There are dozens of examples in recent years of fraud at the polls.”

Nicole Austin-Hillery, the Washington director for the New York University Brennan Center, said that what constitutes fraud is often based on a “misunderstanding” or “miscommunication.”

In the meantime, many minorities are not being given the opportunity to vote, she added.

She called the current voting system “woefully inadequate.”

“When it comes to our democracy, we should be doing everything we can to make sure that everyone has the right to voice their opinions at the ballot box,” Austin-Hillery said.

--This report was updated on Thursday at 7:15 a.m.