It’s election season again. And with that comes a barrage of PSA’s and famous people reiterating that the most important thing you can do is vote. Yet, in the 2016 presidential election only 58% of eligible voters went to the polls. Only 58 percent! Almost half of people that could vote, either were not able to or chose not to.
Voter turnout is a critical indicator of how well our local systems are working to provide all children with love and support. Research by Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler highlights that the people who are not turning out to vote tend to be more supportive of unions and government spending on health insurance and public schools compared to the population that is voting. In fact, research has shown that disparities in voter turnout directly predicts minimum wages, children’s health insurance spending and anti-predatory lending policies.
To increase access to livable wages, affordable healthcare and quality public schools, we must address the barriers to voting so we elect representatives committed to ensuring that all children have the opportunities to learn and thrive. The Schott Foundation’s Loving Cities Index outlines the deep and growing body of research on the direct connection between cross-sector supports and a child’s success in high school and post-secondary degree attainment. Addressing massive gaps in voter registration and voter turnout is critical to ensuring all economically marginalized voters are represented, not just the white, blue-collar class, and when everyone’s voice is represented at the polls, policies are put in place that actually lead to lower levels of income inequality.
How can we remove barriers to voting?
People do not vote for one of two reasons: 1) they can’t or 2) they choose not to.
There are numerous reasons why people can’t vote. Many of those barriers to voting are created by state laws and practices that determine how difficult or easy it will be to register to vote, who is eligible, what you need to bring with you when you vote, how long the voting period will be, wait times at voting stations, and what options residents have to mail in or vote-at-home. The Center for American Progress compiled a great resource summarizing how localities and states can set up policies and practices to encourage voting and ensure our democracy works effectively, and sharing examples of ways different states are working to increase turnout. If legislators cared about every person’s right to vote, they would ensure that those policies and practices were in place and hold themselves accountable to high turnout rates, including:
- Remove or reduce the burden of registration with automatic voter registration, same-day registration, and online voter registration
- Create larger windows for voting with options for in-person early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and vote-at-home systems
- Restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated
- Introduce voting rights and civic responsibility in school curriculum
- Broaden the options for voter identification, for those facing barriers to gaining identification cards or drivers licenses but have other forms of government-issued identification
- Ensure every school provides voting-age students with an option to register on-campus to vote, including pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds
While localities and states are responsible for setting their own policies and approaches to voting, there are important steps that the Federal government must take to provide a check and balance on states to protect our sacred right to vote. Unfortunately, in 2014 the supreme court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which had previously kept specific jurisdictions with a history of race-based voter discrimination from changing election rules without preclearance from the federal government. This ruling opened the floodgates to laws that suppress voter turnout in states across the country, which likely had a detrimental effect on voter turnout and a real impact on election outcomes. The people affected by voter suppression tactics are most often those that have been most impacted by policies rooted in racism and hate, and it’s critical that their voices are heard in order to replace those systems with policies and practices that create healthy living and learning environments where everyone can thrive. Therefore, federal laws that create pre-emptive protections against laws that suppress voting participation are essential to protect every person’s right to vote and to uphold a functioning democracy.
Even with great systems for registration and voting that are designed to promote turnout, there are still many people that are able to vote but choose not to. The reasons people choose not to vote can differ by person, but typically stem back to either a belief that the system doesn’t work, that their vote doesn’t matter, or that they do not have a candidate that they support. The Love Vote is one project aiming to motivate non-voters by creating a platform to connect them with those that can’t vote (including teens, immigrants and disenfranchised citizens) who share their stories and ask their family, friends and neighbors to make a promise to vote on their behalf. Other efforts to increase representation of women and people of color running for office and innovate on the voting system promise to chip away at the issue of having candidates in the running that people will be excited to turnout to vote for. Some of those innovations include efforts to limit campaign spending and Maine’s ranked-choice system, both of which highlight ways to encourage more people of diverse backgrounds and political thought to run for office, and as a result gain more interest in participation in the voting process.
The right to vote has become politicized in the past decade, with the debate being framed as a choice between safe-guarding our elections or letting anyone who shows up vote. This narrative has lost sight of the ultimate outcome we should all care about: voter participation. Our democracy rests upon every one of us having the opportunity to vote and feeling compelled to do so. Current rates reflect an epidemic of under-representation of the interests of people of color, low income individuals, and young people, and as a result our systems and policies are being shaped in ways that the majority do not agree with. Without a vote, that dissent has no power. Without a vote, we lose access to the supports that give every child the opportunity to learn and thrive.