Article created by the The Century Foundation.
Echoes of the 2000 U.S. presidential election were heard today from across the Atlantic as the opposition leader in Italy, Romano Prodi, was
said to have won the election over Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi by 158 votes to 156 votes in the Senate and 0.1 percent in the lower chamber. Berlusconi is at the time of this writing
refusing to concede and an aide “demanded a ‘scrupulous’ investigation into why an estimated 500,000 ballots were annulled. Mr. Prodi’s bloc is thought to have won the vote in the lower house by just 25,000 votes.” As the
BBC put it, “The final results came after a nail-biting night of conflicting forecasts, based on exit polls and partial counts, which variously put the coalitions of Mr. Prodi and his rival ahead. The leader of the observation team from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Peter Eicher, said there appeared to be irregularities including ‘a very large number of blank, invalid, or contested ballots.’”
end up in Italy ’s court system—which might be an even more spectacular if not slower spectacle than we saw in 2000 here. Given Italy’s parliamentarian system, another likely scenario is a very quickly organized new election.
For an election observer like me, another very intriguing result of the Italian election was the turnout: 84 percent. The headline on that out of Italy is that this is an increase from 82 percent in 2001, showing how hotly contested this election was. This factoid would tend to lend discredit to the common argument heard here that turnout will only rise if we have more competitive elections. We got downright giddy about the 60 percent turnout in 2004.
Undoubtedly many factors come into play in the relatively pathetic turnout in the United States versus Italy—or most other nations for that matter. Internationally, U.S. voter participation
ranks 139th out of 172 countries.
But it needs to be at least taken very seriously that Italy voted over two days, a Sunday and a Monday.
Why can’t the United States do something similar?
There is nothing in the Constitution that says elections have to be held on a Tuesday. In fact, it was deemed the best day in the nineteenth century because it was the day farmers could most easily reach the county seat in order to vote.
There is every reason to believe that having a two day election with one or more days on a weekend could improve turnout. According to
the U.S. Census, 21 percent of people who did not vote in the 2000 election cited “too busy/conflicting schedule” as the reason why. The percentage was even greater for younger voters. It is clear that working people, people who have more than one job, or parents of small children all confront serious logistical challenges to voting the way we do it now. While early in person voting has moved us somewhat in this direction, such an option is often limited in terms of times and location, if available at all on the weekend when most people are not working. Moreover, I would continue to contend that 1) there is an enormous value in citizens voting at the same time based on the same pool of information about the candidates and the issues and 2) there is still nothing like a concrete day (or two) of civic participation to focus the body politic.
It also notable that, unlike in the United States where it is up to the voter to ensure his or her right to vote, the
local government is responsible for the registration of voters. It is also compulsory for citizens to be on the voter registration list. Such a universal registration system in the United States—where the government registers voters—would also surely go a long way to increasing turnout, since it would eliminate a hurdle that has consistently been a barrier to voting for many, particularly for the millions of Americans who move every year. In its report on voter registration, the U.S. Census Bureau
stated, “The key to voter turnout is registration, an important factor in the willingness and ability of citizens to vote.”
Having lived through this type of political chaos ourselves, we Americans can only wish that the Italians will learn from our experience and find a way to have a smoother transition than we did in 2000. But maybe we can learn something from the Italians in the process too.