Posted by Beau Tremitiere on September 23, 2016
To further discussion on how best to improve our democracy, FairVote occasionally posts guest blogs while not endorsing every opinion and reform presented. Here is a guest blog from Beau Tremitiere. Beau is the Co-Founder of Election RAVE Campaign, a nonpartisan initiative promoting democratic participation and civic education in American law schools. Follow the campaign on Twitter @electionRAVE.
There is something fundamentally wrong with our voting system—the fact that less than 37% of eligible voters cast their ballots in 2014 should be a national emergency. While many progressives attribute low turnout to voter identification laws, targeted poll closures, and strategic purges of registration rolls, I believe our challenges run much deeper. To many Americans across the political spectrum, voting seems futile. This foundational idea primes the American psyche to accept unproven claims of rigged elections, simultaneously fueling rampant apathy and sowing further distrust in our political institutions and leaders.
Expanded early voting opportunities and automatic registration laws are a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, we need a paradigm shift in the way we think about and administer our elections to engage the tens of millions of voters currently on the sidelines. Making Election Day a national, paid holiday is one such radical step: this would eliminate hurdles to voting for millions of workers and students whose schedules, family obligations, and commutes make it impossible to get to the polls on a regular weekday.
Yet, it is the symbolic value of this change that has the potential to remedy our most deeply rooted challenges. Canonizing Election Day in this manner could serve as a strong statement of values that voting supersedes all other professional and personal obligations; eliminate the false cover of scheduling conflicts for those who could vote but prefer to use a convenient excuse to mask inaction; depoliticize voting rights and restrictions by instead making Election Day a national celebration of centuries of self-determination; and create a virtuous cycle of increasingly higher turnout as voters have fewer abstaining friends and relatives and non-voting becomes socially inacceptable in more communities.
The need for redefining the ethos of participation is greatest among young voters. In 2014, fewer than 1 in 5 eligible voters under the age of 30 cast their ballots. Even the excitement of presidential races in 2008 and 2012 couldn’t get turnout above 50% in either election. Recognizing the transformative potential of such a shift in perspective, several universities have canceled classes on Election Day. Liberty University has canceled all classes, organized buses to drive students to their polling stations, and scheduled an all-day party on campus for the students to build excitement. Northwestern Law has canceled all classes and gone one step further than any other school to enhance the (actual and perceived) integrity of our election by channeling students and faculty into volunteer positions as election monitors and poll judges. Not only will this be an empowering experience for the student and faculty volunteers—bringing to life democratic principles previously confined to classroom conjecture—but their presence will benefit communities throughout Chicago by reducing wait times at polls and deterring invidious efforts at suppression and other foul play.
Nothing prevents every other law school in the country from following suit, empowering tens of thousands of students and faculty, and beginning a revolution in the way we think about and treat Election Day. While public schools often require state legislative action to change official schedules, professors with Election Day lectures and seminars can unilaterally reschedule that single class period for any other day during the semester. Other schools freed from these legal constraints should close school for the day—again, the “inconvenience” of rescheduling one day’s worth of classes pales in comparison to the “inconvenience” of perpetuating a disconnected and uninspired voting ethos. We know that many non-voters justify their abstention with the proposition “what difference can my single vote make?” Law school deans and professors may be tempted by the same excuse for inaction this fall—liberating a single classroom of students won’t fix a broken electoral system or eliminate voter apathy, so why bother?
Every man and woman who stood on the Selma bridge could have sought comfort in this rationale, and they wouldn’t have been wrong. Dorothy Day and Alice Paul could have given up their fight for suffrage because, after all, they’d only be getting one vote apiece after all their effort. Yet, without such selfless and individually irrational sacrifice, the right to vote would remain a fantasy for women and citizens of color. Law school deans and professors should honor the legacy of these voting rights legends by likewise rejecting the easy excuse and instead playing their small part in realizing the elusive dream of a fully participatory democracy.
Image Courtesy: Theresa Thompson