As U.S. voters prepare to cast their ballots in state and local elections, campaigns are hoping to energize their supporters and get them to the polls. At Harvard Kennedy School, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation hosted a roundtable discussion on the challenges of voter turnout with two experts in political campaigning and organizing.

Cecilia Nicolini MC/MPA 2017, a research fellow at the Ash Center examining voter participation and the role of technology in urban politics, discussed her experience working on a hotly contested 2015 mayoral race in Madrid, Spain. Nicolini, who worked as a campaign consultant running elections in Europe and Latin America before coming to HKS, was joined by Miles Rapoport, a senior practice fellow in American democracy at the Ash Center and former president of the independent grassroots advocacy organization Common Cause.

Cecilia Nicolini MC/MPA 2017 and Miles Rapoport, senior fellow at the Ash Center, discuss strategies for raising voter turnout in the U.S. and abroad.

The 2015 mayoral contest in Madrid was a watershed moment for organizing and voter turnout. In Madrid, a retired judge and grandmother, Manuela Carmena, broke the conservative People’s Party’s 24-year grip on power. Carmena was backed by Ahora Madrid, a new coalition of left-wing political parties in Madrid committed to strengthening citizen participation in government.

“In traditional campaigns, you need the support of mass media. If you don’t have that, you use social media,” said Nicolini. Scores of artists threw their support behind Carmena, crafting witty posters, memes and videos, which went viral on social media and helped boost Ahora Madrid’s standing in the polls. Newly empowered voters, energized by Carmena’s outsider candidacy and insurgent social media campaign, turned out in unexpectedly large numbers.

While insurgent parties and candidates have successfully tapped social media and other strategies for turning out voters, Rapoport reminded participants of roadblocks to voting in the U.S. From voter ID laws to limits on early voting and attempts to purge voting rolls, it is no surprise, Rapoport argued, that voter turnout in the U.S. lags far behind most democracies. “Let’s start by not locking the door and locking people out from voting,” he implored.

For many potential voters, registering represents the largest hurdle to casting their ballots. “To improve voter turnout, first and foremost you have to get people registered,” said Rapoport, who also served as Secretary of State for Connecticut and helped oversee that state’s voter registration and election administration efforts.  “Once you’re registered, you count.”

Across the country, states and localities are working to make voting easier and more accessible. “Already 10 states and the District of Columbia have implemented automatic voter registration,” Rapoport noted. Automatic voter registration initiatives have built on the success of motor voter laws in many states, which allowed voters to register at their local motor vehicle registration offices.

“There is an energy,” Rapoport noted. “The Women’s March in January was the largest single political mobilization in American history.” Translating that energy into voter participation, however, will likely require more than Ahora Madrid’s viral videos and memes. “You need rules that are welcoming and not discouraging, and then you need energy and organizing,” he added.  

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