Sharing this number with my students came at a most opportune time - we've just begun studying voting patterns and political participation. They are coming to the stark realization that Americans don't much care for voting. In fact, the biggest election in recent memory (2008) saw a whopping 62.3% turnout rate. For all the fanfare and excitement of that election, we didn't even break the two-thirds threshold.
My standard comment when introducing this topic is to remind students that more Americans vote for contestants on 'American Idol' than vote in presidential elections. They, in turn, instantly remind me that you can vote multiple times on shows like that, and that anyone at any age can vote. I then chastise them for wasting their time on reality television instead of quality programing, and so the classroom banter goes. The point that is ultimately made, however, is the truly sad rate at which Americans turn out at the polls nationally.
In our discussion today, we focussed not only on the problem but also solutions. Here are some of the problems we identified as to WHY Americans vote in smaller numbers than other industrialized democracies:
- Voter registration and voting is elective, not mandatory.
- Voting can be inconvenient. (not here in Washington where we vote from home!)
- Elections are held on Tuesdays, people are busy during the week.
- Voter apathy
I challenged my students to propose solutions. I told them they had just been appointed to a presidential commission to study, and propose solutions to, the issue of non-voting. Here are some of the highlights. Never mind that many would require a constitutional amendment; I applauded them for their creativity:
- Make voting mandatory, with tax or financial penalties for non-voting.
- Automatic voter registration on the 18th birthday.
- All mail elections, nationwide. (again, already here in Washington!)
- Voting via text message
- Incentivized voting using food, tax breaks, gift cards, or other rewards.
- Penalized non-voting by requiring an extra round of unpaid jury duty
- Federal requirements to states to reach 85% turnout or lose federal funds (from something?)
But the most creative option (unfortunately, also the least realistic) came from my 6th period. A group of three students proposed a 'Hunger Games' style arena spectacle to punish non-voters. Electoral freeloaders would be required to complete their ballot, then run through a gauntlet of obstacles and challenges just to submit it, all the while being jeered by a taunting crowd. The lesson, I was told, would be to show how much easier it would have been to just to vote in the first place.
While their knowledge of civil liberties and constitutional protections are clearly still emerging, I was proud of the variety and ingenuity of these ideas. Indeed, that will be the enduring challenge for their generation - to make an important, yet antiquated practice both palatable and relevant to a youth culture that is used to having everything at their fingertips.