Democracy: The Winning Horse
How we can invest in a true culture of civic participation
By David Moren
Leading up to last November’s election, much of the buzz was about “How do we get more people registered to vote?!” A noble and necessary question, to be sure, yet one I often feel misses the point of our end goal — getting people to actually vote, not just register.
The data shows that this discrepancy is all too common. In my home state of California for instance, we broke records and saw a net gain of approximately 1 million new voters registered compared to an issued report from the same time period in 2012 <cue the cheering!>. Yet by Wednesday afternoon of the primary, only one in four eligible Californians and one in three registered voters actually did the deed <cue the head scratching!>.
Tens of millions of dollars were spent on voter registration efforts across the country — $25 million from California billionaire Tom Steyer alone — not to mention all the endeavors from Secretaries of State and the countless groups who focus on the same across the country. Again, noble and necessary for sure, but not quite the ROI a savvy investor might hope for.
After all that dust has settled, a certain old expression comes to mind, mildly adapted for the occasion of course: You can lead a horse to the voter registration table, but you can’t make it vote.
Well, I’d like to take the original question of how to get more people registered to vote and give it a new spin by asking: How do we get people to want to vote in the first place so that corralling or chasing them down to register is no longer needed?
I think about the amount of money that was spent on voter registration efforts and wonder what it would look like if we invested that money back into K-12 civics education. Such an investment could help develop a true “culture of voting,” that starts at a young age as students are in class, learning about how government works, resulting in motivated citizens clamoring to register and vote once they qualify a few short years later. (Or in the case of many states, it might happen at the very same time, where currently, 11 states allow citizens as young as 16 to pre-register). Instead, we’ve practically gutted civics education from our schools, and where it still exists, it’s often that all-too-common and all-too-uninspiring rote learning of memorizing (then regurgitating) facts for a test.
Various efforts are underway to making voting more accessible to more and/or younger people — whether it’s a number of cities considering allowing voting at 16 or 17, California gearing up to encourage more vote-by-mail and offer community “vote centers” in more accessible locations, Oregon’s new Automatic Voter Registration and its positive results, or the 15 states currently allowing same day voter registration, where voter participation was 7 percentage points higher than in states where voters have to register weeks before Election Day…with more innovative examples emerging all the time.
Minnesota’s turnout was nearly 15% higher than the national average — maybe we can just ask them to draft a new national voter engagement strategy?
Agree or disagree with any or all of them, we might all agree that we need to be “doing politics differently” and it’s hard to argue against beefing up civics education, where of course Generation Citizen would advocate that it needs to focus specifically on local politics and be action-oriented. I’d also like to see someone argue that we shouldn’t be trying innovative ideas to get more people involved, or that having more people participate in our democracy is not a good idea to begin with (and to be clear, neither scenario includes non-US citizens participating via computers in foreign countries <ahem>).
California State Senator Henry Stern, who Chairs the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee, is asking why we can’t leverage social media to get more young people involved. He imagines Town Halls or elected officials’ “office hours” being streamed via Facebook Live and, instead of driving across town to their office (or worse, across the state to the capitol), constituents could give public comment and electeds could in turn respond via the respective platform. If nothing else, our own President has shown the power of social media tools to communicate to one’s base. So why not the other way around, but done formally, and with thoughtful intentionality?
In short, I believe any effort that gets more people voting is a good idea, but first, let’s be smart about it and invest in solutions that establish that habit and motivation at as early an age as possible (indeed, research shows that the earlier you establish the habit, the more likely you are to become a lifelong voter). Better yet, let’s meet people where they are online with more innovating ways of engaging voters’ voices.
Playing catch up after the fact is proving to be inefficient and relatively ineffective. Instead, let’s get those horses — aka voters — to enthusiastically lead themselves to water and drink eagerly, while simultaneously casting their votes and participating more fully in our democracy.
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.