One of the burning questions about saving our democracy is how to jump start voter turnout, no matter whether in state, municipal or federal elections.
Again, I like talking politics to near-strangers I meet. Here are some of their answers to the question above. Nothing might seem terribly new, but that’s because we’ve yet to find the political will to even experiment with change.
1. Pay individuals, starting at age 18, to register to vote. Pay them something every time they vote. In a capitalist democracy, nothing motivates like money. The federal government has just given three trillion dollars to its citizens to get the economy off life support. Good use of taxpayer dollars, I think. So is paying citizens something to insure our democracy. The payment might be in cash, or perhaps a tax deduction or credit on your income tax.
2. Impose a tax “penalty” for failing to vote—use the stick as well as the carrot. We are not “a free country.” We are a country of incredible freedoms, and they cost a lot to maintain.
3. Raise House term limits from two years (which is mostly spent on frantic fund raising instead of making laws) to four years. Keep the Senate term at six.
4. Eliminate the electoral college. This puts a nail in the coffin of gerrymandering. The popular vote should determine winners.
5. Have federal guidelines (such as time off from work to vote) to expand voting opportunities and minimize voter suppression.
6. Instead of going to a polling station, encourage mail-in ballots, allotting a full month for voters to comply, and have strong oversight of the counting process. Consider making mail-in voting mandatory.
7. Drastically limit the amount of political donations that individuals, corporations, and PAC's can make.
8. Maintain and expand media coverage of every election cycle. Shine a bright light in dark corners without being intimidated or censored.
9. Make civics class mandatory in high school.
Any of the above requires a major shake up in the status quo, arousing the ire of, well, the status quo, which has the most to lose. It takes courage to fight another civil war, especially using brains and good-will instead of ideologies. Does medicine, science, the arts, or fashion ever remain the same, let alone for 250 years? The Constitution’s best chance of survival and effectiveness is not to stay the same, either.
As a curious citizen, I sometimes ask random people how they feel about discussing their political views. Seriously. I ask them NOT to tell me their own leanings. Most won’t engage me, but some do.
I’ve put quotes around their answers; their exact wording might be slightly different, yet not in substance.
1. Male. White. Professional. “I never talk politics, even with good friends, unless I already know they agree ninety to one hundred percent with my own thinking. Otherwise you easily lose clients as well as friends."
2. Male. White. Gig economy. “I like to engage my Uber fares with any and all subjects, including politics, but they have to bring up the subject first. Too many people don’t want the stress of even thinking about politics. Others don’t seem to think about anything else."
3. Female. Latino. Waitress. “I’ve been watching the George Loyd riots on television. Protestors, yes, looters, no way. I feel our country has to change from within, at the ballot box. I intend to vote this year."
4. Female. White. High school teacher. “It’s very hard to speak about politics in the classroom, even if you’re teaching civics or history. Parents worry, ridiculously, that they’re kids are getting brain-washed. There is so much fear attached to one’s opinion being attacked. Politics and religion are the sacred cows. Why will it ever change?"
5. Female. Boomer. Retired. “Hard not to feel pessimistic after decades of polarization and how it touches everything. This all started with after 9/11, the polarization, in my opinion. I still vote because I care about my country.”
6. Male. Latino. Car mechanic. “I think we stopped being a democracy a long time ago. If voter turnout, no matter at what level, rarely exceeds 50%, you’re getting the message you don’t count, and that special interests and money control everything. Privileged white people are sometimes the biggest racists I know. But some are brothers-in-arms."
7. Female. Black. Professional. “We need a grass roots revolution. Sanders and Warren almost pulled it off. Racism needs to be outlawed at the federal level. It’s a hate crime.”
8. Female. White. High school student. “My friends are too busy or cynical to care about the political process. I’m an optimist. When things get really bad, as they are, I believe that good is around the corner. History cycles back and forth between good and evil.”
9. Male. Latino. Professional. “You have to walk on egg shells when expressing a strong political opinion. You don’t want to offend anyone. Yet, if you don’t have convictions, and express them, you’re a coward."
10. Female. Mixed race. Gig economy. “I let the candidates do the political talking. I listen and discuss at my church. I try to separate the ego-driven from those who genuinely care about issues and people in need. At my church there’s a lot of talk of candidate who follow religious doctrine. That shouldn’t be the top priority for voting."
One white knee on a black neck may prove to be one knee too many.
The police-caused death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week may be the galvanizing point for real change this November. I hope so. Racism is on the ballot. Like COVID-19, racism too is a virus, an invisible pathogen passed down from generation to generation. It can hibernate from time to time, but in four centuries, it has never been dormant for long. Please help kill this virus by voting. Please study the history of the candidates. Please turn out the noise and listen to your mind and heart. My novel, Once Upon a Lie, publlshed a few years ago, was my small contribution to insights into American racism of the Eighties and Nineties. I learned so much in writing it: The kernel of the virus is always the same. If you don’t have discussions with those who don’t agree with you what that kernel is—don’t give up. Keep talking, keep protesting without violence. Having the courage to substitute dialog for polarization may save our democracy."
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.