7 lessons about elections that America should learn from other countries

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Supporters of Trinamool Congress (TMC) celebrate after learning the initial poll results of the West Bengal Assembly elections, in Kolkata, India
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Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

Compared to other developed countries, America’s voter turnout rate is pretty sad.

In Sweden, for example, 83% of registered voters participated in the 2014 national election. In Belgium, the rate was 87%.

In the US, meanwhile, only 53.6% of registered voters cast a vote in the 2012 election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

It doesn’t have to be this way. America could see equally high voter turnout if it abandoned its old-world customs in favor of strategies that have been proven effective elsewhere.

Here are seven strategies that could get more Americans to the polls.


In Estonia, people can vote over the internet with few security risks.

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European Parliament

Online voting is a scary concept to some, but in Estonia it has proceeded mostly without incident since it was first introduced in 2005. In 2015, 31% of people voted online.

The system relies on the Estonian ID card, a smart identification card that encodes people’s identity and protects online transactions.

In an early voting period the week before election day, Estonians can enter an online vote and change it however many times they want. The final vote is the one that’s logged once election day arrives.


In Switzerland, anyone can vote by mail a few weeks ahead of election day.

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Ruben Sprich/Reuters

Many US towns and cities have their own systems for absentee and early voting, but many of those systems are designed for people in special circumstances, rather than the regular voter.

In Switzerland, all voters receive a ballot by mail about three weeks ahead of election day. They can send in their vote at any point during the period leading up to election day, or vote as normal at their local polling location.


In Sweden, the government automatically registers people to vote.

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Reuters

In its last parliamentary election, Sweden’s voter registration rate was an astounding 86%. The US wasn’t far behind with 84%, but that varied wildly between cities and states. Sweden’s turnout was more consistent.

The Nordic country has managed to do this by maintaining a national database of all Swedish citizens and non-citizen residents who are eligible to vote. Come election season, the Swedish Electoral Authority combs through that database and send proofs of registration to people in each district, giving them a heads up about where and when to vote.


In dozens of countries, election day is held on Saturday or Sunday to maximize turnout.

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Twitter / Sarah Fielden

When the US government passed a law in 1872 establishing election day as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, it made little difference that it was a weekday, since lots of people still worked over the weekend.

But now Saturday and Sunday are widely recognized as people’s days off, and many countries with higher turnout rates than America vote then, including Finland, Iceland, Luxembourg, and New Zealand.


In India, election day is a national holiday.

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Supporters of Trinamool Congress (TMC) celebrate after learning the initial poll results of the West Bengal Assembly elections, in Kolkata, India
source
Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

Or you could go the route of India, which has made election day a national holiday that grants public and private workers the day off.

Election day is also considered a public holiday in Israel, though people in many public-facing jobs, such as restaurants and movie theaters, still work for several hours in the morning before voting in the afternoon.


In Belgium, it’s actually illegal not to vote.

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Yves Herman/Reuters

Belgium isn’t the only country where voting is mandatory (there are roughly two dozen in total), but its laws have been on the books the longest.

Initially adopted in 1892 for men and 1949 for women, the law imposes a moderate fine if you don’t vote in an election. If you avoid four elections in the span of 15 years, you can lose your right to vote for the next 10 years and have trouble getting public jobs.

Belgium has the highest rate of voter turnout in the world. Behind it is Turkey, which also has compulsory voting.


In Australia, you can vote at any polling place in your home state or territory.

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David Gray/Reuters

Instead of telling voters to go to the polls in a particular district, Australia lets people vote at any location in their state. The country has six official states, each of which are enormous, so even if people are away on election day, there’s a good chance they’re still in their home state.

People who do leave their home state can visit an interstate voting center if they haven’t already submitted an absentee ballot.