Here is one safe prediction for next month’s elections: After the votes are counted, the winners give victory speeches and the losers their concessions, both sides will declare disappointment in the low turnout in many of our communities.
Less than half the state’s registered voters are likely to participate in the local-heavy Nov. 4 mid-term elections. Of those, people of color and the young will vote in proportion much lower than their share of the state’s population. In 2010 – the most recent midterm – nonwhites made up 26 percent of the eligible voting population, but only 22 percent of the people who voted.
For young voters, the numbers are even worse. In 2010, voters under age 30 made up 22 percent of the eligible voting population but only 8 percent of the voters who cast ballots.
We can do better. We have the greatest democracy in the world, but we can’t say our elections are fully free, fair and accessible when entire communities clearly don’t find them so.
Our system of government depends on broad citizen engagement and voter participation. Here are three things we can do right now to encourage those ideals and count more votes.
1 Simplify the registration maze
In North Carolina, as in most states, the rules for registering to vote are pre-digital technology. And they rely almost entirely on citizens to keep registration current, such as notifying elections officials when they move.
Only about 86 percent of eligible North Carolinians are registered; in Canada it’s 93 percent. The difference is Canada has universal registration, where the government automatically signs up citizens to vote.
We already have the tools in place, through the state Department of Motor Vehicles, the Social Security Administration and even Selective Services. When young men turn 18, the government finds them and ensures they sign up for a draft that doesn’t exist. Why not register them to vote at the same time?
2 Ditch the booth
In Colorado, Oregon and Washington, registered voters receive ballots that they can return by mail. Voters in those states can mark their ballots in their living rooms at their convenience. There’s no need to take time off work, drive to a polling site and stand in line. The result is consistently higher voter turnout. A Portland State University researcher estimated that if all 50 states did this, 20 million more votes would be cast in national elections, and a whopping 50 million ballots would be counted in primary elections.
3 End political gerrymandering
Close races that encourage candidates to meet voters and take positions generate citizen interest. But increasingly precious few of our legislative elections are competitive.
Just 41 of 120 seats in the General Assembly were seriously contested past the primaries, according to the bipartisan N.C. Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform. This is in large part because the district lines are drawn every 10 years by the party in power. To ensure its candidates win, a party creates districts that skew partisan, whether or not it makes sense geographically.
Iowa, on the other hand, has strict guidelines in place for redistricting and a nonpartisan board to do the drawing.
Voters across the state are choosing county commissioners, school boards, state legislators, sheriffs, judges and district attorneys. Those elected will make vital decisions about economic opportunity and the quality of life in their communities. A U.S. Senate race could determine the direction of our federal government.
Democracy is hard and important work. We need all hands on deck.
Shoshannah Sayers is deputy director at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.