This is part of a series on voting in America, which will run up to Election Day in November. For Part 2, on a court case over a Kansas voter registration law, go here. And for Part 3, on the Supreme Court and racially discriminatory voting laws, go here.
This is a fragile moment for the nation. The integrity of democratic institutions is under assault from without and within, and basic standards of honesty and decency in public life are corroding. If you are horrified at what is happening in Washington and in many states, you can march in the streets, you can go to town halls and demand more from your representatives, you can share the latest outrageous news on your social media feed — all worthwhile activities. But none of it matters if you don’t go out and vote.
It’s a perennial conundrum for the world’s oldest democracy: Why do so many Americans fail to go to the polls? Some abstainers think that they’re registering a protest against the awful choices. They’re fooling themselves. Nonvoters aren’t protesting anything; they’re just putting their lives and futures in the hands of the people who probably don’t want them to vote. We’ve seen recently what can happen when people choose instead to take their protest to the ballot box. We saw it in Virginia in November. We saw it, to our astonishment, in Alabama in December. We may see it this week in western Pennsylvania. Voting matters.
Casting a ballot is the best opportunity most of us will ever get to have a say in who will represent us, what issues they will address and how they will spend our money. The right to vote is so basic, President Lyndon Johnson said in 1965, that without it “all others are meaningless.”
And yet every election, tens of millions of Americans stay home. Studies of turnout among developed nations consistently rank the United States near the bottom. In the most recent midterms, in 2014, less than 37 percent of eligible voters went to the polls — the lowest turnout in more than 70 years. In 2016, 102 million people didn’t vote, far more than voted for any single candidate.
The problem isn’t just apathy, of course. Keeping people from voting has been an American tradition from the nation’s earliest days, when the franchise was restricted to white male landowners. It took a civil war, constitutional amendments, violently suppressed activism against discrimination and a federal act enforcing the guarantees of those amendments to extend this basic right to every adult. With each expansion of voting rights, the nation inched closer to being a truly representative democracy. Today, only one group of Americans may be legally barred from voting — those with felony records, a cruel and pointless restrictionthat disproportionately silences people of color.
In the months leading up to the midterm elections on Nov. 6, when the House, Senate and statehouses around the country are up for grabs, the editorial board will explore the complicated question of why Americans don’t vote, and what can be done to overcome the problem. The explanations fall into three broad categories.
SUPPRESSION A 96-year-old woman in Tennessee was denied a voter-ID card despite presenting four forms of identification, including her birth certificate. A World War II veteran was turned away in Ohio because his Department of Veterans Affairs photo ID didn’t include his address. Andrea Anthony, a 37-year-old black woman from Wisconsin who had voted in every major election since she was 18, couldn’t vote in 2016because she had lost her driver’s license a few days before.
Stories like these are distressingly familiar, as more and more states pass laws that make voting harder for certain groups of voters, usually minorities, but also poor people, students and the elderly. They require forms of photo identification that minorities are much less likely to have or be able to get — purportedly to reduce fraud, of which there is virtually no evidence. They eliminate same-day registration, close polling stations in minority areas and cut back early-voting hours and Sunday voting.
These new laws may not be as explicitly discriminatory as the poll taxes or literacy tests of the 20th century, but they are part of the same long-term project to keep minorities from the ballot box. And because African-Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, the laws are nearly always passed by Republican-dominated legislatures.
In a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s strict new voter-ID law, a former staff member for a Republican lawmaker testified that Republicans were “politically frothing at the mouth” at the prospect that the law would drive down Democratic turnout. It worked: After the 2016 election, one survey found that the law prevented possibly more than 17,000 registered voters, disproportionately poor and minority, from voting. Donald Trump carried the state by fewer than 23,000 votes.
FAILING TECHNOLOGY The legitimacy of an election is only as good as the reliability of the machines that count the votes. And yet 43 states use voting machines that are no longer being made, and are at or near the end of their useful life. Many states still manage their voter-registration rolls using software programs from the 1990s. It’s no surprise that this sort of infrastructure failure hits poorer and minority areas harder, often creating hourslong lines at the polls and discouraging many voters from coming out at all. Upgrading these machines nationwide would cost at least $1 billion, maybe much more, and Congress has consistently failed to provide anything close to sufficient funding to speed along the process.
Elections are hard to run with aging voting technology, but at least those problems aren’t intentional. Hacking and other types of interference are.In 2016, Russian hackers were able to breach voter registration systems in Illinois and several other states, and targeted dozens more. They are interfering again in advance of the 2018 midterms, according to intelligence officials, who are demanding better cybersecurity measures. These include conducting regular threat assessments, using voting machines that create paper trails and conducting postelection audits. Yet President Trump, who sees any invocation of Russian interference as a challenge to the legitimacy of his election, consistently downplays or dismisses these threats. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump’s State Department has not spent a dime of the $120 million Congress allocated to it to fight disinformation campaigns by Russia and other countries.
DISILLUSIONMENT Some people wouldn’t vote if you put a ballot box in their living room. Whether they believe there is no meaningful difference between the major parties or that the government doesn’t care what they think regardless of who is in power, they have detached themselves from the political process.
That attitude is encouraged by many in government, up to and including the current president, who cynically foster feelings of disillusionment by hawking fake tales of rigged systems and illegal voters, even as they raise millions of dollars from wealthy donors and draw legislative maps to entrench their power.
The disillusionment is understandable, and to some degree it’s justified. But it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. When large numbers of people don’t vote, elections are indeed decided by narrow, unrepresentative groups and in the interests of wealth and power. The public can then say, See? We were right. They don’t care about us. But when more people vote, the winning candidates are more broadly representative and that improves government responsiveness to the public and enhances democratic legitimacy.
These obstacles to voting and political participation are very real, and we don’t discount their impact on turnout. The good news is there are fixes for all of them.
The most important and straightforward fix is to make it easier for people to register and vote. Automatic voter registration, which first passed in Oregon just three years ago, is now the law or practice in nine states, both red and blue, and the District of Columbia. Washington State is on the cuspof becoming the tenth, and New Jersey and Nevada may be close behind. More people also turn out when states increase voting opportunities, such as by providing mail-in ballots or by expanding voting hours and days.
The courts should be a bulwark protecting voting rights, and many lower federal courts have been just that in recent years, blocking the most egregious attacks on voting in states from North Carolina to Wisconsin. But the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. has made this task much harder, mainly by gutting a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in a 2013 case. Decisions like that one, which split 5 to 4, depend heavily on who is sitting in those nine seats — yet another reason people should care who gets elected.
In the end, the biggest obstacle to more Americans voting is their own sense of powerlessness. It’s true: Voting is a profound act of faith, a belief that even if your voice can’t change policy on its own, it makes a difference. Consider the attitude of Andrea Anthony, the Wisconsin woman who was deterred by the state’s harsh new voter-ID law after voting her whole adult life. “Voting is important to me because I know I have a little, teeny, tiny voice, but that is a way for it to be heard,” Ms. Anthony said. “Even though it’s one vote, I feel it needs to count.”
She’s right. The future of America is in your hands. More people voting would not only mean “different political parties with different platforms and different candidates,” the writer Rebecca Solnit said. “It would change the story. It would change who gets to tell the story.”
There are a lot of stories desperately needing to be told right now, but they won’t be as long as millions of Americans continue to sit out elections. Lament the state of the nation as much as you want. Then get out and vote.
U of M’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (housed in the Ford School) just published a report detailing “local leaders’ views on elections in Michigan: accuracy, problems, and reform options.” Check out the information below!
“This report presents the opinions of Michigan’s local government leaders on issues related to election administration in their jurisdictions, including problems encountered, worker recruitment and training, updating voting equipment, and potential
reforms. These findings are based on statewide surveys of local government leaders in the Spring 2017 wave of the Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS).
By Elizabeth Pratt, University of Michigan student
Originally published by Democracy Works
In an ideal world, Americans young and old would storm the polls, or fill out their absentee ballots, with enthusiasm and knowledge come election day. It would not matter if the election was for local officials or the president, because American citizens would care regardless. Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in, at least for the moment. The world we do live in is a world where many people feel discouraged to vote—especially 18- to 24-year olds.
“Why is this?” you may ask yourself. For some young adults, the problem with voting is the complicated registration process. For others, it is a lack of understanding about how to register to vote, and then how to actually vote at the polls. Others may not understand the importance of voting, especially in midterm and local elections. Turn Up Turnout, a nonpartisan student group at the University of Michigan started by Professor Edie Goldenberg, hopes to encourage 18- to 24-year olds to vote despite these concerns.
This past summer, Turn Up Turnout, known by its members as TUT, worked to create and implement a workshop teaching incoming students at the University of Michigan WHY it is crucial to vote in midterm and local elections, as well as HOW to register and vote. The workshop includes a deliberative discussion encouraging participants to share differing opinions, common misconceptions about voting, a timeline detailing when certain groups of Americans gained the right to vote, and reasons why it is important to vote. The workshop is meant to be interactive and educational, allowing students to voice concerns about voting, which facilitators can address in hopes of demystifying the voting process.
One challenge we faced, even before facilitating, was remaining nonpartisan. This has been the basis of TUT from its inception, the treasured key to our success. Therefore, we had to be concerned about everything from the colors of the slideshow to the deliberative discussion topic, since no data could appear to clearly favor one argument over another. We overcame this difficulty by meticulous editing of the presentation and thorough research into the information we provided. However, the most important way to remain nonpartisan was to remind ourselves of the purpose of the workshop: to teach and encourage everyone to vote, because voting is the lifeblood of the democratic process.
Through the facilitation of these workshops, we learned a lot. For one, we learned how important it is for participants to be given a voice, regardless of their opinion. We encouraged this by circling the room during the deliberative discussion to hear what everyone said, calling on people who had not talked yet or raised their hands, and allowing for uncomfortable silences in hopes that someone would feel like talking who had not done so before. We also learned that many participants did not understand aspects of voting such as absentee ballots or not having to fill in every item on the ballot—concerns that we now make a priority to address in our presentation.
Furthermore, TUT has partnered with the Ginsberg Center at the University of Michigan to register students on TurboVote at new student orientation. This initiative resulted in the registration of over 1,200 students on TurboVote, placing the University of Michigan at the top of the TurboVote leaderboard for over two months. The main challenge we faced was: how do we make sure our booth is not ignored by students who are tired of waiting in line and have their hands full with pillows and suitcases? We dealt with this problem by having someone stand outside of the sign-in room and tell students, in firm language, that the next step of signing in was to register to vote. Thus, students understood the importance of what we were doing and could ask us questions while navigating TurboVote. From this process, we learned how crucial it is to have students register in front of you, where they are held accountable and can see how easy it is to use TurboVote, which will aid them in registering to vote and much more.
TUT’s work will not stop here. We are proud of our summer initiatives, and plan to continue to develop them over the fall, as well as tackle some new projects. Some of our next steps include:
- Training facilitators at Michigan universities to implement our workshop in high schools across the state;
- Continuing to register the University of Michigan students through TurboVote at campus events;
- Teaching a class on strengthening the right to vote; and
- Kicking off the Big Ten Voting Challenge. The Big Ten Voting Challenge starts in September 2017. This is a competition between all Big Ten schools to see who can achieve the highest percentage improvement of voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections, as well as who can most improve their percentage of voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections (compared to the 2014 midterm election turnout). TUT and the Ginsberg Center will be hosting events on campus to register students through TurboVote and engage students in hopes of helping U of M win the challenge.
In closing, we at TUT hope sharing our challenges and triumphs will give other universities the tools to implement movements on their campus, because the time has come for universities to acknowledge and use their power to impress upon students the importance of fulfilling their civic duty. One piece of parting wisdom is that increasing student voter turnout is composed of three simple aspects:
- Collaboration between students and faculty;
- Transparency of universities concerning voter turnout statistics on campus; and
- Hard work by people who are passionate about their mission.
For more information on TUT, our initiatives, and our events, visit sites.lsa.umich.edu/tut.
by Massachusetts State Senator Eric Lesser (@EricLesser) and California State Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (@KevinKileyCA)Add one more to the long list of faulty assumptions about the 2016 election: young Americans stayed in their dorm rooms rather than heading outside to vote.
Apathy on behalf of students towards the democratic process may be the stereotype – but increasingly, it’s not the reality. The conventional wisdom in American politics is that, compared to older generations, young people on college campuses exhibit a lack of trust in the process and don’t vote. With civil discourse strained and a country divided, “the young are passionate, opinionated, and barely aware,” as a leading magazine put it a few years ago.
In fact, student participation improved by 7 percent in 2016, compared to the presidential election in 2012, according to an important new, landmark study from Tufts University and the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE). Put another way, more than 350,000 additional students voted in 2016 than 2012. The NSLVE study is as significant as it is sweeping: it analyzed voting rates of nearly 10 million active students attending more than 1,000 institutions of higher education across all 50 states – roughly half of all college students in the country. Among the findings was increased voting rates among Latino and Asian students. And while older students in the NSLVE data set were more likely to vote, the participation rate of the youngest group of college students increased notably by 4 percent over 2012.As a Democratic State Senator in Massachusetts and a Republican State Assemblyman in California who lead our states’ Millennial Caucuses, and as former classmates who met on a college campus where we developed a shared passion for public service that transcends party, we are encouraged by these findings. If millennials – a generation that surpassed Baby Boomers in terms of size in 2016 – continue to vote, we will emerge as a potent force in American politics that elevates issues important to young people like housing costs, college affordability, and the country’s debt to the top of the agenda.Yes, the country is divided, and so are young voters, who split roughly evenly across the ideological spectrum. But engaging young voters is a nonpartisan cause, and we can come together as Democrats and Republicans to help young Americans participate in American democracy. Student engagement in the democratic process is critical if our country is to tackle its most pressing challenges, think long-term, and continue to stand for freedom on the world stage. Because as President Ronald Reagan famously said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream.”Across the country, there is a new energy to make improvements on campuses: colleges and universities have been taking action to increase student voting rates and informed citizenship in recent years. Northwestern University is a prime example. When the freshman class of 2021 arrived on campus this Fall, just 39 percent were registered voters. But by the end of the first day of class, voter registration was at a staggering 96.4 percent. How? The school integrates voter registration into move-in day. Because of Northwestern’s Center for Civic Engagement’s programs, registering to vote becomes as routine for new students as unpacking extra-long twin sheets for their dorm rooms.In the Big Ten, Conference Presidents have joined together for the Big Ten Voting Challenge, a competition that seeks to increase voter registration and participation on campuses. It’s a bipartisan group including former Republican Governor Mitch Daniels (President of Purdue University) and former Acting U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Obama, Rebecca Blank (Chancellor of University of Wisconsin – Madison). The Southern Conference is also running competitions to award schools with the highest and most improved voter participation. And on October 19th the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge is hosting an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. to honor college campuses, and individuals on those campuses, that are leading the way to increase student voting rates.Still, there’s work to be done. Younger Americans continue to have the lowest voting rate of any age group, according to Pew Research Center. We can do better. And any voter outreach efforts must be coupled with a renewed focus on civic education in our schools, so students can start learning how democracy actually works and develop the values and habits of citizenship before they reach voting age.More than fifty years ago, President Truman commissioned a study on higher education, finding that civic education is the foundation of liberty, and stating that, “Without an educated citizenry alert to preserve and extend freedom, it would not long endure.”It’s now on us to come together, encourage civic engagement, and ensure that we “preserve and extend freedom” in our country for generations to come.Senator Eric P. Lesser is a Democrat representing the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts and previously worked as an aide in the Obama White House. When he was first elected at 29 years-old in 2014, Senator Lesser was the youngest member of the Massachusetts State Senate.Assemblyman Kevin Kiley represents California’s Sixth Assembly District, near Sacramento. Formerly a high school teacher, Assemblyman Kiley is the state’s youngest Republican Legislator.This post was originally published in ATTN: