Columns

Steinman ’19: Making America vote again

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The United States is often said to have pioneered the modern republic, in which citizens hold the coveted right to voice their political opinions through voting. And yet today, Americans exercise that right with far less frequency than citizens of other countries. Only 54 percent of the voting-eligible population (a figure that excludes non-citizens and felons who have lost the right to vote) voted in the 2012 presidential election, placing us 31st out of 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The problem, interestingly, is not primarily one of turnout but one of voter registration: Of registered voters, 84.3 percent turned out to vote in 2012, the seventh-highest figure in the OECD. Voter registration in this country is an arduous process that seems almost intentionally difficult to navigate. This especially affects college students attempting to vote in their home states, which requires the extra, bureaucratically intensive step of obtaining and submitting an absentee ballot. This logistical difficulty goes a long way in explaining why 18- to 24-year olds were about 20 percentage points less likely to vote than the overall population in the 2012 election. In the 2014 midterm elections, only 17 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds cast a ballot. Midterms always have a lower turnout than regular election cycles, but with over 30 million 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States that year, that 17 percent figure represents 25 million wasted opportunities for Americans in our age demographic to have their voices heard.

There is no shortage of problems with our electoral process. From super PACs to felon disenfranchisement, American elections are dictated by systems that too often favor the privileged and powerful at the expense of the rest of society. For example, the simple fact that Election Day occurs on a Tuesday is an insurmountable hurdle for anyone who cannot afford to take time off of work to stand in line at the polls. Restrictive voter ID laws are being ramped up across the country. The barriers that college students face while attempting to vote seem trivial when compared to the behemoth of campaign finance reform or the persistent discrimination that occurs at and around polling sites.

Still, our age group’s increased involvement in the electoral process has the potential to transform politics in a way that transcends any particular candidate or election cycle. Our votes matter: Alex Smith, the national chairman of the Republican College National Committee, once noted, “If you started the voting age at age 30, (former) Governor Mitt Romney would be president today.” Regardless of your political affiliation, 25 million wasted votes is not something to be trifled with, particularly when the largest popular vote margin separating the winner and loser of a presidential election in U.S. history was just under 18 million votes in 1972. Imagine what could happen if more than 17 percent of us voted.

The OECD data suggest that the biggest barrier to voting for eligible citizens is the registration process. When people are registered to vote, they are much more likely to make it to the polls on Election Day. While it’s true that there is some degree of self-selection here — those who take the time to register to vote are more likely to take the time to vote — if every 18-year-old were automatically registered, a major roadblock to democratic participation would be removed. Automatic voter registration would make voting more accessible for students navigating the confusing electoral process for the first time, not to mention for the millions of other eligible but unregistered voters who lack the time, motivation or knowledge to figure out the arduous registration process.

President Obama spoke in favor of automatic voter registration in February, calling it “something we should be proud to do.” Legislation to that end has already been passed in California, Oregon and West Virginia, but there is still a long way to go. In a democratic republic like ours, active voter participation keeps politicians accountable to their constituents and is one of the most powerful ways to effect change. The more people vote, the more powerful voting becomes.

I’m shocked by the number of Brown students I’ve talked to who can rattle off polling statistics or debate eloquently on the merits of their preferred candidates but didn’t cast a primary ballot because they forgot about the deadline or couldn’t figure out how to register. Political opinions and knowledge are great, but they are put to waste unless you actually exercise your right to vote. There’s still time to register for the primaries in California, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Kentucky, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Puerto Rico, South Dakota and West Virginia. But even if your state’s deadline for the primary has passed, you can still register in time for the general election in November. That’s the first step to changing 17 percent to 100 percent.

Claire Steinman ‘19 can be reached at claire_steinman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.