Voter turnout rates

From my limited perspective, it feels as if interest and participation in this presidential election is at an all-time high. I know so many people who helped raise funds, threw political parties, watched the debates, drove to other states to go door-to-door, volunteered to patrol polling sites, and of course, cast ballots. I received two phone calls at home today, urging me to go vote, and was accosted on the streets of NYC by clipboard-toting youths about once a day up until the voter registration deadlines. Online, I encountered countless links to Rock the Vote, a site that made it simple for the Internet-saavy (read: youths) to register to vote. I'm not a huge fan of any motto that begins with "Rock the..." but that huge red checkmark logo is burned into my brain.
But these are just my impressions. Will turnout actually be record-breaking? This paper by Michael McDonald at The Brookings Institution shows that if voter turnout rate, though it was lower on average from 1972 through 2000 than from 1952 to 1968, wasn't as dire as people commonly believe. Rates were artificially depressed by not removing a growing pool of ineligible voters from the denominator. The turnout rate in 1992 was about as high as that in the 60's.
This year's voter turnout rate would need to exceed 63% to break the record set in 1960. A quick glance at the headlines would seem to indicate record turnout, and I've seen estimates of 60%+. Maybe the modern record will be broken. I suspect, and hope, it will.
Still, it's nothing compared to voter turnout rates in other countries around the world (another table and chart).
How can the U.S. raise the turnout rate? For one thing, the voting experience needs to be simpler. I voted absentee in Washington state, where about half the ballots are cast via mail. Oregon votes entirely by mail. Roughly a third of ballots in California are done by mail. I called a toll-free number, a ballot was e-mailed to me, I printed it, filled it out, and dropped it in the mail. Here in NYC, I've heard quite a few stories of long lines, long waits, disorganized polling sites, and voter confusion. That may true of only a few sites, but overall the process of voting at a polling site can't be any easier than voting by mail. Why should working folks and parents with young children have to re-arrange their schedules to wait in line at a polling site they may or may not be able to find when they could simply fill out the form at home and pop it in the mailbox? How about the elderly, who may not be physically able to stand in line for such a long time? It's a sign of how low our voter turnout rates have been historically when people express joy at seeing the staggering length of the line they have to wait in.
I've read articles claiming that voting via the Internet wouldn't significantly increase voter turnout rates. However, in the interest of simplifying the process as much as possible, especially for today's youths who've grown up with the Internet, it needs to happen. People should be able to register, update their addresses and information, check their registration status, and vote online. The commonly cited problems with Internet voting (security, user interface, scaling, etc.) are all solvable.
The goal should be that even the laziest voter should have little excuse not to vote.
The other problem to solve, then, is the problem of objective information (if it's achievable) on all the initiatives and candidates on each state's ballot. The U.S. has one of the longest ballots in the world. The Washington state ballot covered two pages, and I had to vote on all sorts of initiatives and candidates I knew little about. It's easier to find objective information to help someone select a digital camera than a public official. Here, again, the Internet can help. Sites like Vote-Smart are a good start, but their database of information is very thin. Even a simple issues grid for each candidate would be an improvement on what's available today.
Beyond that, perhaps the election process itself should be altered. Heightened interest in the election is good, among other reasons, because it raises scrutiny of current election processes. Many people have been decrying the Electoral College. Perhaps it will be reformed or done away with. To push it even further, would the U.S. ever consider Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) or Ranked Choice Voting? The case for IRV is strong, and San Francisco has implemented it.
Ideas for another day. Today, the ship has sailed. Living on the East Coast, I may have to stay up until tomorrow morning, if not later, to find out the election results. I've been trying to wake up earlier every morning in preparation for the marathon this Sunday, but it will be difficult to keep that promise tonight.
Footnote: The Iowa Electronic Markets Presidential Winner Takes All has made a late shift, and at this momentpredicts a Democratic victory with somewhat less than 52% of the popular vote. I believe Kerry will win.