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Volunteering for a voter’s registration drive this past weekend, I grabbed a handful of forms and a clipboard from the coordinator, believing it would be easy to get people to sign up, or confirm they already had. Wandering around the local mall, asking passersby if they were registered, I was surprised and occasionally appalled at the reactions. Voters’ apathy is something statistics document, but hearing people’s reasons for not wanting to register revealed why: a sense of personal powerlessness.
More than anything else, I now believe, breaking down eligible voter apathy is the cure for what ails our national, state and local politics. We must find a way to convince the legions of potential voters their voice counts...and their input is greatly needed.
Starting at the bus depot, a couple other volunteers and I queried strangers in our most non-threatening voices if they were registered to vote. Immediately, I was told by a few young men they didn’t have time. They had time to stare blankly at their smartphones, and they had had plenty of time to perfectly groom themselves that morning, yet they lacked a few minutes to fill in a form and become members of the democratic process. Whatever, dude.
Blowing them off, I approached a middle aged woman, thinking I might have a better chance to at least have a conversation. The woman spewed racism about our president, and said she didn’t vote for those types of people. I was happy she didn’t register, and since I’m a volunteer, I can admit that.
Wandering into the building, I had some luck with hipster young people. They demonstrated a sense of shame at not being registered; and they accepted they should probably participate. Good, I thought, guilt is better than nothing. Guilt can be sated in this case with action. I handed out a couple forms for folks to bring home if they were working. I signed a few people up. In total, I had four forms after an hour, which my coordinator said is actually a good show. Sometimes one form is all a volunteer can show for an afternoon.
What hurt my heart were reactions from many seemingly reasonable people who refused to register, though they were eligible. At the Play Space, I approached several moms with tots and asked if they were registered. Dropping their heads, they mumbled no, they weren’t interested. They demonstrated low self-worth in their response, which truly disturbed me. Acting as if that voting stuff is beyond their comprehension, the moms looked powerless. Their sense their input wasn’t of worth bewildered me. These parents obviously loved their children and went to great lengths to care for them, yet they chose not to care for the country they bore these kids into by engaging in the democratic process.
Many parents who wring their hands over what juice to give their kids, which schools to send them to, and the safety of their toys won’t spend a few minutes a year deciding which leaders will protect these interests. Everything from the safety of our food supply to school funding to affordable health care for kids is determined by politicians; yet so many parents don’t bother to vote. How can they miss this connection? It’s irresponsible to their children and a sad show for themselves.
In the mall, I spoke to two members of the military: one was in uniform and the other wasn’t, but offered the information. The first waved me off with irritation and something approaching contempt. He was beyond dismissive. The next person told me straight out she was in the military so she doesn’t vote. She said it doesn’t matter who is in power…which guy was of no interest to her. She said she just went where she was told to and did what was ordered, and it mattered not who the boss was. I would have thought she was kidding, but a friend told me her family members in the military don’t vote, and that it’s common in the service not to. The Pew Center put military voter turnout at 20% (http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/Reports/Election_...).
This level of apathy disturbs me: it's utterly powerless.
Our service men and women need to vote at close to 100%, especially during presidential elections. Al Gore lost in 2000 by a hair… George Bush won and quickly engaged us in two endless wars; which disproportionally affected military families since he did not reinstate the draft. And it doesn’t matter who the boss is? Are you kidding me?
Another demographic I found confounding was young women. At a fast food kiosk, there were several young women we approached. When asked if they were registered to vote, the women erupted into giggles. One said firmly she was registered…she was fierce. The others were unsure about that whole democracy thingy. One asked me, “I don’t know…do I want to vote?” Yeah, I had a few things to say to her… that yes indeed she wanted to vote: for health care choices, educational choices, career opportunities… for these reasons and more, she wanted to vote. She took a form and said she’d fill it out after her shift.
At a branch of the local library, I asked if I could hand out some registration forms, and was told by a staff person I’d have to call ahead, set up a table off to the side, and, “Don’t make eye contact with people. They can come to you if they want, but don’t engage with anyone.” Mind you, I did not identify myself as being with Organizing for America and I stated I was only there to sign people up, and not to speak on my political affiliations. She said that’s good, but volunteers are still not to make eye contact.
The library staff person treated me like I was handing out the Book of Mormon, not helping people exercise their right to vote in a democratic society. I wanted to remind her that signing up people who utilize the library might help pay her wages, since our library needs levies to stay afloat. But I just smiled and told her thank you. I’ll be back, I thought.
After circling the mall a few times, I packed it up and headed to headquarters to drop off my forms. Other volunteers showed up as I was leaving, and more customers filed in as well. The Voter’s Registration Day of Action went on without me. Volunteering is great because you can leave whenever you want.
Thinking about what I’d seen and heard, I tried to come up with some answers to the quandary of eligible voter apathy. I have a few ideas:
1.Teach them when they’re young. Kids need to learn civics, and personal responsibility in a democratic society, all the way through school. Every high school senior should be registered to vote before he/she are handed a diploma. Teachers and parents must emphasize to every child her/his vote counts and opinion matters. Everyone is born with a voice, and kids must be encouraged to express theirs. This shouldn’t seem like an option to them: it should feel like an obligation.
2.Encourage a culture of voting in the military. In the strictly hierarchical world of the military, leadership should be speaking with their men and women about the importance voting and make it easy to do.
3.Mommy guilt should include voting. Parents: don’t let other parents off the hook. When it’s time to go vote or send in a ballot, call your friends and make sure they did too. Offer to babysit, so parents with little ones can have time to drop a ballot. At PTA meetings, mention when it’s time to vote. Voting should be a social expectation, not some kind of personal issue. Nag, yes, nag friends to vote.
It’s time to take voting out of the closet, and make it a common, normal thing to do, like mowing the lawn or having your vehicle serviced: just another responsibility adults keep up because it’s important. The sense of voiceless-ness and apathy demonstrated by some I spoke with can be remedied by simply doing what needs to be done: vote. It’s our right, as well as our responsibility. It would be fascinating to see the quality of government if voter’s turnout elevated from less than 40% to 80%. Who would be running the country then? My guess: leaders who serve the public and not special interests.