The 2020 elections saw a massive surge of voting, drawing the largest number of voters since the election of 1900. This huge increase in voting showed, with some unexpected results, that the care of the world’s oldest and most important democracy really does rest on just one thing: voting. This map shows what happens to voting when we look only at the young vote: Arizona, which birthed Barry Goldwater and has long been a conservative bastion, turns blue. Texas turns blue.
The 2018 midterm elections saw an uptick in voting, as many people, especially the young, voted at higher rates. Although this uptick was welcome, we still have a crisis of voting, in that not enough of us do it.
Why? The Founders, the white men who wrote the Constitution, and who muscled the adoption of it through the warring factions that made up the original 13 colonies, made compromises to get votes from the two thirds of the colonies needed to allow its adoption. These included the compromises that there would be no federal oversight of voting and that the states would be in charge of all elections, even federal ones. The small colonies were concerned that they would be overwhelmed by the large states, so they insisted on equal numbers of Senators, two per state, and used the House of Representatives as a body for proportional representation. They also restricted voting to white men with property, and state legislators were to choose Senators (direct election of Senators would not take place until 1913).
Voting was designed for elites, and echoes of that resonate today.
There has been progress — women got the vote in 1920, people of color got the vote when President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act — yet voting remains anemic. Most federal elections are decided with 50% of the eligible voters voting, and some elections, like mayoral races and school board elections, can be decided by as little as 6% of the eligible voters.
Everybody Votes and The New Mexico Voter Group have established organizations to focus on registering voters. We are focused on the nuts and bolts of registering voters: setting up tables, getting forms, getting the young voters to register, getting the forms to the county clerk. Yet, we despair that we’re not doing enough. Many eligible voters, especially the young ones, breeze by us, muttering something vague about “no voting.” We have registered a huge chunk of voters, with few resources, and so we know that it can be done. Clearly we could use resources — money — but we also believe that we need a revolution in the person who registers the vote, the voter registration agent. How do we do this?
In short, we need to move voter registration from a passive endeavor to an active one. Oregon, with its automatic voter registration, is showing how this can work. Vote by mail elections seem to increase participation, but the adoption of these nationwide seems to be a ways off, and we need to register these voters now.
The person who registers someone to vote is the very first contact that people have with the mechanisms of democracy. The voter registration agent needs to be prepared to both register the voter and to give the person registering a reason WHY to register and why they need to vote. That is asking a lot, but it seems to be the requirement to have a successful encounter.
We have a huge task ahead of us. We have proven, as evidenced by the turnout in the 2020 elections, that voting is the key. The election saw the best turnout in 120 years. We need to continue, and to train and make sure that the people doing voter registration are prepared. They need to know when the next election is. They need to be able to explain the role of the voter in the democratic process. They need to be able to rebut the conventional wisdom that “my vote doesn’t count” and explain how their vote DOES count.
None of this will simply happen. We need a complete curriculum that teaches people to register voters. We need to teach the registering voters what they need to know: facts, how the process works, and what is coming up in the near term that the new voter will vote on. Stacey Abrams, who led a group that registered 800,000 voters in Georgia, shows what can be done with leadership and political will: she and her group have helped decide the balance of power in Washington.
We need resources, we need direction, we need to scale. We can and have identified the problem, and we need to quickly implement the solution. We can do it if we want to. Do we, as citizens of the world’s oldest and most important democracy, have the will to do this? I hope we do. I believe we can.
Dave Mulryan is the Co-Founder of Everybody Votes, a group that registers high school seniors to vote. He is the president of Mulryan/Nash Advertising, Inc., an LGBTQ marketing company.