Voters made history during the 2014 midterm elections, though not in a good way. The midterms commanded the lowest voter turnout in 70 years—just 36.4 percent of eligible voters came out to cast their ballots.
Seth Flaxman is trying to modernize democracy and fight voter apathy through the internet. He's the co-founder of Democracy Works and TurboVote, an online platform that claims to make voting "as easy as renting a DVD from Netflix."
Flaxman says that voters don’t come out for a variety of reasons, but a big issue is Election Day itself.
“We vote on a Tuesday because that was the height of convenience for voters in the 1700s,” he says.
Back in the early days of the United States, many Americans went to church on Sundays, which is one reason why polls were not open on the weekends. When Election Day would roll around, Flaxman says that citizens would go to a candidate’s home the day before an election to be courted with a celebration.
“On Tuesday morning, the two candidates would line up in the square and then, one at a time, you’d shake the hand of the candidate you supported in front of everyone,” he says. “You’d be back home in time for market day on Wednesday. We have a long tradition in the U.S. of making voting fit the way we live. The problem is that it fits the way we lived in the 1700s.”
In addition to the day of the week that an election is held, Flaxman says there are several other issues that create dismal voter turnout figures. The U.S. Census Bureau asks people why they choose to stay at home, and Flaxman says there isn’t just one issue.
"Everything you can imagine: Registration, inconvenient polling place, had to work, weather, transportation problems," he says. "This is the low-hanging fruit of the problem. We can do a lot to address those problems without legislative changes—we just need to work on the technology."
Flaxman is hoping to tackle some of these issues and make it easier for people to cast their ballots with TurboVote.
“Someone should be able to sign up once and get help with everything they need to stay registered and vote in all of their elections for the rest of their life,” he says. “That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
TurboVote will actually do a lot of the leg work for voters—the site will even fill out forms for people will all of their pertinent information. Once completed, the necessary voter registration and Board of Election forms can be emailed to a user, or delivered by a postal worker with a pre-addressed envelope.
“We’ll also send text messages and email reminders to make sure you meet all of your deadlines,” says Flaxman. “We’ll remind you when to send in your vote-by-mail application or your ballot. If you’re voting in person, we’ll send you a reminder that says, ‘Tomorrow is your primary election, here’s where your polling place is.’”
Though there might be several institutional obstacles to voting that drive down turnout, many voters also stay home because they feel disenfranchised with the candidates on the ballot—something that is isn’t easily fixed with new technology.
But Flaxman says that if it becomes easier for people to vote then more people will come out to the polls—something that will make politicians care more about what the people are saying.
"Politicians are ultimately only going to represent the people who vote,” he says. “If only 30 to 40 percent of people are voting, those are the only people politicians will worry about serving. If we can increase participation by those 50 percent of people for whom process is the main part of the issue, we’ll already have changed the game significantly.”