The United States has long taken pride in its efforts to promote democracy around the world. But one source of embarrassment has been a trend of declining voter turnout in U.S. national elections. One group is trying to find new ways to boost voter turnout.
The U.S. Census Bureau says 64 percent of citizens age 18 and over voted in the 2004 elections, up from 60 percent four years earlier. Prior to that, though, U.S. voter turnout had been on a steady decline since the 1960s, which has prompted a wide range of proposals aimed at encouraging more Americans to get to the polls.
The latest effort to improve U.S. voter turnout comes from a bipartisan, grass roots group called Why Tuesday? They propose shifting the federal Election Day from the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November to the first Saturday and Sunday of the month.
Among those leading the effort is the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young.
"Of [the leading] 36 organized democracies, the turnout in the United States is number 36," he said. "Almost everybody votes in larger percentages than we do. And we decided that the main reason is convenience, that it is very inconvenient for working people to vote on a Tuesday."
The tradition of holding national elections on a Tuesday dates back to 1845. At that time, a large percentage of the U.S. population was spread out in rural areas that depended on farming. Farmers often needed one day to get to the polls and one day to return and wanted to avoid traveling on Sunday, a national day of worship.
Political experts say a major reason for poor voter turnout in recent years has been a feeling of apathy among many people who believe that casting their vote has little practical impact on the political process.
But advocates of changing the national Election Day say the more important factor is convenience and that it is time that voting procedures keep pace with the evolving nature of a modern, industrialized society.
Republican pollster Ed Goeas supports the reform effort because it would make it easier for working families with small children to find the time to vote.
"And that when you ask them why they are not voting, those that are not voting, it is very clear that the driving force behind it is ease of voting in terms of fitting within their schedule and not that it is a protest vote by a non-vote," he said.
Several states have tried various ways of encouraging high voter turnout in recent years, from allowing votes by mail to expanding polling hours and absentee voting.
The United States is not alone in trying to find ways to boost turnout.
Norman Ornstein is a political expert with the American Enterprise Institute who supports the idea of switching Election Day from Tuesday to the U.S. weekend days of Saturday and Sunday.
"Now it is true that some democracies use coercive tactics to get people to vote and we could get voter turnout up enormously if we did as Australia does or as Italy does and deny some benefits of citizenship or, say, deny a driver's license to some people who do not vote," he said. "I do not think that is a particularly good way to go."
Supporters of weekend voting also predict it would draw higher numbers of younger voters and minority voters.
"Single voters, Hispanics, younger voters, groups that are not very attached to either party right now and that both parties are battling over, you see [them] particularly strongly attached to this theme and a number of the reforms, that elections really ought to be reformed to make them more convenient," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster also involved in the Why Tuesday? reform group.
The polling done by the group indicates a large majority of those surveyed favor changes to make voting more convenient. But the poll results also suggest there is no consensus on how best to do that.
Some of the people surveyed liked the idea of expanded voting hours over two weekend days. Others wanted time off from work to vote while there was also some support to make Election Day a national holiday.
Organizers of the Why Tuesday? group say their main goal is to spark a national debate on the best ways to encourage more Americans to vote.
"If we are going to be the world's leader of democracy, then we have got to show how it is done and we have got to make it as easy for people to vote in the United States of America as we made it in Haiti or South Africa or as we have helped Afghanistan and Iraq," said former Ambassador Andrew Young.
Any changes in federal law involving Election Day would have to be approved by Congress.
Others involved in the reform effort include two former presidential contenders, Republican Jack Kemp and Democrat Bill Bradley.