Bright: How we can foster a culture of voter participation

Zach Bright, Opinion Editor

This is the fourth column in “Democracy Do-Over,” a weekly series exploring and making the case for improvements in how we elect public servants and ensure effective representation by all levels of government.

Voter participation in the United States has been lackluster. According to the Pew Research Center, only 55.7 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2016, lagging behind other democracies. Feelings of apathy and disempowerment, along with some people’s inability to take the time to cast a ballot, are likely contributors.

It’s important to inculcate a sense of civic duty in up-and-coming generations so that all people feel connected to the political system. (Not just political science majors who have the audacity to think they know how to fix the entire government through a weekly series of columns in their college paper.) It’s important to bring in all voices and earnestly extend that opportunity so people have a say in deciding who represents them.

Structural reforms are a start. They are easy to propose, just difficult to execute. For one, election day should be a federal holiday. People who might not have the luxury of skipping out on their job should have the time to cast a ballot. Automatic voter registration is another obvious step that would boost accessibility, so that no one has to worry about having to cut through red tape to carry out their constitutional right. Sixteen states already implement this rule, which leads to higher turnouts. Solutions, not confined to this list, help tackle societal problems that can shut out marginalized voters for a multitude of reasons.

Something less evident but still worth seriously considering is ranked-choice voting. On the surface, it might seem difficult for residents to grasp. In reality, however, the system is relatively straightforward. Say three candidates are running for office. Candidate A gets 40 percent of the vote, Candidate B gets 35 percent and Candidate C gets 25 percent. The candidate who secures the lowest number of votes is eliminated, and the votes cast for them are redistributed to whoever was the second-choice of each individual voter. After this redistribution, votes are tallied and this process is repeated until a candidate wins a majority.

This system already functions in counties and cities across the country. The example earlier mirrors the 2018 San Francisco mayoral election, wherein three well-positioned candidates were jostling for the office. Because more than two viable candidates ran, no candidate won an outright majority, making the ranked-choice vote all the more helpful to ensure that a majority of voters got a candidate that they could agree upon, be it as their first, second or third choice.

Another great arena for action is the proper management of the Federal Election Commission. This body is a watchdog responsible for ensuring that elections are carried out without foul play or interference. Yet there are multiple vacancies, which are preventing the commission from carrying out its duty. How can Americans feel it is their duty to vote if the agency is being neglected under the current administration?

However, we can’t simply legislate problems away and expect turnout to rise. Familiarizing students with voting as part of their upbringing, inside and outside of the classroom, might change the political culture. Even allowing high schoolers to vote at an earlier age would help them navigate the nuances of politics before, transitioning into adulthood. Over half of the roughly 20 million students who attend college live at least 100 miles from their hometown, presenting geographic limitations that limit voting that becomes a habit.

There are some good signs that point to increased turnout among newer voters. Turnout nearly doubled from the 2014 elections to the most recent midterm elections. Still, eligible millennials and Gen Z votes combined make up less of a total share of votes compared to Gen X, as well as boomers individually. I love my dad but I don’t want his generation to have a disproportionate amount of political power to make decisions that will impact mine.

The immediate solutions to revitalizing turnout across the country start with policy. In the long-run, creating a culture that values and feels valued in its political process will ensure that future generations have their voices heard.

Zach Bright is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.