Our Low Voter Turnout And How To Fix It

“All the blood is drained out of democracy — it dies — when only half the population votes.” —Hunter S. Thompson

“Democracy is a fragile dream.”
—State Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville

On primary election day, May 22, 2018, my partner Jane and I awoke at 4:30 a.m. and drove to St. Therese Catholic Church to greet people as they arrived to vote. I was on the ballot for the first time in my life, running in the Democratic primary for state representative in the 35th District. Polls opened at 6 a.m., and we were in place right when the doors opened. A light rain began to fall.

Ten minutes passed.

Then 20.

By 6:30, a mere handful of cars had entered the parking lot. During our half hour there, we spoke to no more than two people.

We moved on to St. Elizabeth, where numbers were similarly low, then on to our polling place at the Medical Arts Building on Eastern Parkway. There, we encountered a line to vote, which was a promising sign. But when I asked the poll worker how turnout was looking, she sighed, shook her head and muttered, “Not as good as we’d hoped.”

In 2015, Kentuckians elected a new governor with a mere 30.6 percent of voters casting ballots. In 2018 primary elections, just 23.5 percent of voters showed up on Election Day. Even in years when turnout is considered massive, the United States trails other democracies in voter participation. The 2008 presidential election saw 61.6 percent voter turnout, the highest ever for a U.S. presidential election. The following year, over 70 percent of Germans turned out to vote, and in 2010, British voters turned out at 65 percent.

So why is voter turnout in the United States so uniquely bad among industrialized western nations?

Entire books have been written on the subject, but there are no definitive answers. One thing is clear: If we don’t confront the problem head-on, our claim to democracy will drift even further away than it already has.

Why don’t we vote?

Getting voters to care enough about an election to actually turn out to vote is an enormous challenge. During my campaign, we made over 12,000 door-knocking attempts, initiated some sort of contact with over 8,000 voters and had one-on-one conversations with over 5,000 voters. And yet, when the votes were counted on Election Day, just 4,866 voters out of a total of over 18,000 eligible voters in my district cast a ballot. That’s 26 percent turnout, or 4 points less, than the already-low turnout of 30 percent predicted by Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

I wish I could say those numbers were surprising, but when you’ve spent months knocking on doors, talking to people who aren’t even aware there’s an election coming up, let alone who they’re supporting, your expectations are inevitably lowered.

I was running for an open seat (but did not advance), due to the retirement of longtime, Democrat state Rep. Jim Wayne. Many people had heard Jim was retiring and knew the election would replace him. Those were so-called “high-performing” primary voters. My campaign decided early to not talk to just those voters. We wanted to deliberately seek those who don’t typically vote in off-year primaries. The so-called “Bernie voters,” or “Obama voters,” of earlier elections. Generally they were young, working-class, non-white, or some combination of the three. These folks — according to the numbers — simply don’t turn out in the same numbers as their older, more affluent neighbors. We made a gamble and put them into our list of folks to contact.

One man in Okolona whose door I knocked on emerged with a confused look on his face. “No one ever knocks on my door,” he said. “You’re the first candidate I’ve seen on my doorstep in 20 years of living here!” We talked about Wayne, with whom he was vaguely familiar. Then, I asked him for his vote. “Oh, I like what you have to say, but if you’re running in the Democratic primary, I can’t vote for you. I’m a registered Republican.” That shouldn’t happen. There shouldn’t have been any non-Democrats on our list, Kentucky being a closed-primary state. I looked at my clipboard. Nope. He was a Democrat.

“There must be some mistake then,” he said. “‘Cuz I’m a Republican.”

I would come to find that this phenomenon was all too common among Kentucky Democrats. Registered as Democrats at a young age, their views became more conservative over the years, to the point where their political identity no longer matched their registered party. If so many people don’t even know their own registered party affiliation, how are we to increase their engagement in our democracy?

Richard Becker and his campaign knocked on 12,000 doors for his run for state representative.

She wished she could vote

At its founding, the United States allowed only property-owning white men to vote. In the 19th century, African-Americans won the legal right to vote, but were still effectively disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws and their enforcement — official and unofficial — by the government and organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Early in the 20th century, women won the right to vote after years of organizing and agitating. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally enshrined African-Americans’ right to vote into federal law.

But disenfranchisement of people of color and low-income people did not end in the 1960s. It can take the form of removing polling locations in predominantly non-white communities, as we’ve seen in Georgia this year, or as we’ve seen in the shameful efforts in North Dakota to deny the vote to Native Americans living on reservations by requiring them to have a street address in order to vote, even though people living on a reservation receive mail at a P.O. Box address. Or it can take the form of denying the right to vote altogether by permanently disenfranchising formerly incarcerated people.

During my campaign, I met a woman while knocking on doors who was enthusiastic about our message. I asked her if I could count on her vote. Her eyes turned downward.

“I wish you could,” she said.

Puzzled, I pressed further.

“I can’t vote, ever since I got convicted of a felony when I was in my 20s.”

I couldn’t say for sure how old she was, but she had to be at least a couple of decades past her 20s by now. “Do you know how I can get my rights back?” she asked. I promised to put her in touch with organizations that help people get their voting rights back. Though we exchanged a few emails on the topic, I never did find out if she was able to get back her right to vote.

Kentucky ranks ninth in the nation for incarceration rates, with the rate surging upward in recent years, even while the national rate declines. Kentucky’s prison population is also dramatically unrepresentative of the population at large, with African-Americans comprising 8 percent of the state’s population, but 29 percent of its incarcerated population. Meanwhile, Kentucky is one of just three states (along with Iowa and Florida) that permanently disenfranchises people with felony convictions.

Working late? No vote

In addition to the legal barriers to voting, there are barriers inherent in the very process. In Kentucky, the polls are open for one day, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can vote absentee in-person or by mail, but only if you are either physically unable to vote or will be out of the county on Election Day. Otherwise, you must show up during the 12 hours of voting on Election Day.

Suppose a voter’s work shift is from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., with a half hour or longer commute. Can they reasonably be described as having a “right” to vote? This is not even to mention issues of childcare, transportation and time off from work, challenges that all disproportionately affect low-income voters. For working-class voters and people living in poverty, “bothering to show up to vote” can be a monumental challenge. As a union organizer, I had earned the endorsements of over a dozen labor unions for my campaign. But when we knocked on the doors of those union members — the 35th district has one of the highest densities of union members of any district in the state —we would inevitably hear about any number of barriers to their voting. I spoke to a man who lived off Preston Highway and worked at one of the Ford plants in town. When I asked him for his vote, he said, “Well, we’re laid off right now. If I’m still laid off on Election Day, you’ve got it.” Otherwise, he’d have to be at work, on the assembly line.

According to the Survey of the Performance of American Elections, a massive data collection effort spearheaded by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, among the most common reasons young people give for not voting are lack of transportation, problems with voter ID (a problem felt most acutely by low-income voters and people of color) and inconvenient hours or location of polling place. One supporter of mine contacted me on Election Day and said she had gone to vote for me, and discovered upon arriving that her polling place had changed, apparently unbeknownst to her. To her credit, she stood strong, and traveled across the neighborhood to her correct polling location and cast her ballot. But one has to wonder: How many others encounter this scenario, and don’t have the time or inclination to follow through to another polling place?

Just across the river, Ohio voters have the option to vote early for any reason or no reason at all. Kentucky could easily allow no-fault early voting itself. Doing so could mitigate some of the basic lifestyle barriers to voting that so many low-income and minority voters face.

A deliberate decision?

I asked Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, why she thinks turnout was so low in May. For her, it comes down to a combination of “process and politics.”

“When you ask people where they have confidence, they have confidence in our teachers, they have confidence in our public schools, but they do not have confidence in our political leaders,” she said, reflecting on her office’s Civic Engagement Survey.

This notion bears out not only in one-on-one conversations with voters, but also in the research. Voters have low and waning faith in government, politicians… and the news media. And it’s eroding their interest in participating in any of it.

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When confronted with low voter turnout, politicians and the news media often place the blame on voters themselves. In a recent New York Times editorial, the newspaper’s editorial board laid out a series of reforms that could help increase turnout in the state’s elections. In the closing paragraph, however, it reminds readers in a not-so-subtle finger-wagging tone that “all the reforms in the world mean nothing unless New Yorkers get out and vote.”

Other news articles and think pieces about voter turnout include some form of the phrase “only 35 percent of eligible voters could be bothered to show up,” as if millions of voters made the deliberate decision not to vote.

The reality, of course, is much more complex.

distrust of the system

The No. 1 most-commonly cited reason for low voter participation, however, is not so easily fixed: distrust of the system or disinterest in politics altogether. This is mirrored in a survey by the Pew Research Center, which reported that people don’t vote because they simply don’t like the candidates or campaign issues. When voters feel as if they are having to choose between “the lesser of two evils,” or are confronted with a campaign style marked by negativity and partisan rancor, they lose interest in voting. As a result, only the most partisan voters turn out, only the most partisan candidates win and we are left with gridlock in Frankfort and Washington.

As a candidate, one of the nice things about running in a primary in a district comprised heavily of members of my own party was that I could be as partisan as I wanted to be. The most common refrain I heard at the doors when out campaigning was either, “If you’re a Democrat, you’ve got my vote!” (which is a misunderstanding of the primary process), or, “If you’ll take the fight to Matt Bevin, you have our support!”

What is to be done?

When considering the sorry state of our electoral system, it can be tempting to want to tinker at the margins of our voting system by trying out various methods to make voting easier or more fun or less time-consuming. But does changing the way people vote actually fix problems of low turnout, voter apathy and broad distrust of our political and electoral systems, or is there a deeper malaise at the heart of our democracy that must be addressed?

Cities and states have begun to try novel strategies for increasing voter participation and civic engagement, with mixed results. With a commitment to work on the problem and the imagination to craft policies to address it, Kentucky could join the ranks of those states trying to increase voter turnout. Unfortunately, as with most issues, partisanship complicates this already difficult problem even further. Here are my suggestions:

Instant-Runoff Voting: Former Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic probably isn’t the first person who comes to mind when thinking of how to reshape the voting process in America. But it’s 2018 and a reality show host is president, so here we are. Novoselic is the author of a book on voting and democracy and one of the founders of FairVote.org, an organization that seeks to increase voter participation and civic engagement through a number of electoral reforms, foremost among them so-called “Ranked-Choice Voting.”

Ranked-Choice Voting, or RCV, or Instant Runoff Voting, IRV, is a system whereby a voter ranks their choices in a particular election such that if their first choice fails to garner an outright majority of votes, their vote is automatically applied to the total for their second choice, until a clear winner emerges.

Sound complicated?

Well, it is, and it isn’t.

RCV has been implemented in several municipalities across the country, most recently in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where, according to Rich Robinson with FairVote.org, 94 percent of voters surveyed in an exit poll said: “They were happy with the experience and thought it was a good thing.” FairVote.org believes that voter apathy is in large part a result of dissatisfaction with the voting process itself, particularly among young voters.

“Young voters are not happy with the electoral system,” Robinson said, adding, however, that RCV “gives voters something to be excited about.”

Critics abound. Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill in 2016 that would have expanded ranked-choice voting, calling the system “overly complicated and confusing” for voters. Others suggested that, in some states, RCV is unconstitutional, while still others reject it as too costly.

RCV is intended to allow third-party and independent candidates to flourish. Our “first past the post” system of elections all but guarantees the continued supremacy of the two-party system. RCV aims to change that.

Proponents and critics aside, change doesn’t come easily. RCV is not likely to make its debut in Kentucky any time soon. No bills are filed in the General Assembly to allow for such a system, and no elected officials LEO spoke to for this piece were immediately supportive of the idea.

Allowing former felons to vote: In Kentucky, a bill to restore voting rights has been introduced in every legislative session for over a decade. Long championed by Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, and now filed by Rep. Darryll Owens, D-Louisville, since Crenshaw’s retirement, the bill would automatically restore voting rights to most former felons who have served their time (excluding murder, treason and several other serious crimes). Though the number of cosponsors has risen steadily over the years, the bill still has never made it into law.

In the final days of his administration in 2015, Gov. Steve Beshear signed an executive order pardoning thousands of Kentuckians who had petitioned his administration for the restoration of their right to vote. Several months later, Gov. Matt Bevin, who had campaigned in part on reintegrating former felons back into society through some form of voting rights restoration, immediately rescinded Beshear’s executive order upon taking office. Though Bevin later signed a bill allowing for felony expungement in Kentucky, he has since made no meaningful push for a true restoration of voting rights.

This November, Florida voters will have a referendum on their ballot that, if passed, would automatically restore voting rights to as many as 1.5 million Florida residents whose right to vote has been stripped from them because of a previous felony conviction. Kentucky, Iowa and Florida are the only remaining states that permanently disenfranchise former felons. The measure recently broke 70 percent in public polling, suggesting that its passage is likely.

It may be hard to imagine why anyone would oppose such a measure. But, as with most policy matters, it comes down to raw partisanship. Because the disenfranchised population is largely low-income and non-white and because those populations tend to vote for Democrats when they do vote, opposition to restoration tends to fall along party lines.

All across Louisville and Kentucky, people who have paid their debt to society are effectively denied their right to vote. As one of only three states without some form of automatic restoration of voting rights, Kentucky stands nearly alone in America. If Kentucky wants to reintegrate former felons back into society and have a truly representative political system, we must put this shameful policy behind us.

Automatic Voter Registration: Voter registration is commonly accepted as a fact of life in American democracy. But it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, requiring voters to register in advance, often during an arbitrary time period, has long been used as a tactic to keep people from voting.

Enter automatic voter registration.

Kentucky could eliminate this unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle by joining 13 other states and Washington, D.C., by introducing automatic voter registration, or AVR. This would make registering to vote an opt-out rather than opt-in proposition. Oregon, which implemented AVR in 2016, has seen a quadrupling in the number of new registrants since enacting the policy. With no more paper forms, data entry and confusion in polling places on Election Day, AVR could streamline the process and save the state money. Registering to vote is an outdated and problematic obstacle to voting and could be eliminated by switching to a system like AVR.

Vote By Mail: Voters consistently cite long lines to vote, difficulties with transportation or identification and confusion about where to vote, as reasons for not casting a ballot.

Is there an easier way?

California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado have implemented voting by mail. Under this system, a registered voter receives their ballot in the mail and has the option to either return it through the mail or drop it in a dropbox located in their neighborhood. In Washington, the ballot includes a nonpartisan voter guide to allow the voter to read more about each candidate and ballot initiative in detail. The system is secure and trustworthy, with no proven cases of fraud.

There are reforms that we could implement to make voting easier, less confusing and more accessible. But until we have a conversation as a society about the nature of our politics, the divisive rhetoric, the role of unlimited corporate money, the unresponsiveness of our leaders to their constituents and, until we come to an understanding of what citizenship means in the 21st century, we are likely to continue to see voter apathy and low participation in civic life.

For something so often talked about as a “right,” voting is not an easily understood process nor a right easily exercised.

But by lessening barriers to voting, offering voters true choices at the polls — candidates and policies they can feel good about voting for — and investing meaningfully in election security, civic education and electoral reform, Kentucky and the United States could go a long way toward ensuring broad participation in the fragile dream that is our democracy. •

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