We think of voting as an individual choice and an individual act—a citizen voting her conscience and marking a ballot. But individuals aren’t turning out that much in the United States. Even in the biggest elections, about 55 percent of the voting age population actually votes. And in midterms that number can plummet (only about 18 percent of eligible Harvard graduate students voted in the 2014 midterms.) That’s not impressive for the world’s oldest democracy (currently near the bottom of the standings among developed democracies). What can we do to create broader and more meaningful democratic participation? Archon Fung, Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government, thinks we should encourage voting and other forms of political participation strongly through strengthening democratic culture and civic responsibility in our society.
Q: Your thinking about voting goes way beyond the mechanics or regulations of voting. What should we be doing as a society if we want to have really high voter participation?
I think the first, and perhaps most important step, is to create and thicken the culture of political participation and voting so that everybody has a stronger sense that they should participate in politics. We should encourage each other—in families, in workplaces, in communities—to actively participate beyond the "I voted" sticker that you get at the polling place. Right now, the discourse on the left is very much focused on removing the barriers to voting, voter suppression, disenfranchisement, access to polling places, bad electoral administration. All of those are very, very serious problems. If you had a magic wand and you could take care of all of those problems, it would increase voter participation a little bit—and protect the right to vote for vulnerable populations—but it wouldn't do much to get us to 80 or 90 percent participation. On the conservative side, a lot of the energy is focused on voter fraud and the security and integrity of our electoral machinery. So, yes, ballots should be secure and there shouldn't be any voting fraud, and, yes, we should protect the right to vote. But what about this bigger goal that everyone who's eligible should participate? It's a goal that I don't think people talk about enough.
Q: How do you “thicken” that culture of participation?
Most of the efforts to get people to vote are undertaken by political campaigns and good government organizations in get-out-the-vote campaigns. But it would be much, much more powerful if the civic culture of participation was woven throughout our communities and organizations — including non-profit organizations, schools, and companies. I wish these organizations would step up to their democratic responsibility to encourage and facilitate the political participation of all of their stakeholders.
Imagine a future in which every high school committed to teaching the importance and skills of political participation and voting, where a requirement for graduation would be for each senior to register to vote, or to pre-register if they’re not yet 18; and for every college and university to have a goal of registering and turning out 80 or 90 percent of all of its students.
Similarly, private companies can do all sorts of things. The simplest thing is making time for people to vote. The outdoor clothing store Patagonia does this in the form of a holiday on Election Day. Similarly, the United Auto Workers negotiated with General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler to allow unionized workers time off to vote, and I understand that salaried workers at those companies get this benefit as well.
In higher education, Election Day is a holiday at Columbia University, and there are a number of campus-wide voter participation and registration challenges such as the Big 10 Challenge and Harvard Votes Challenge. So, I think that there are many ways that organizations can encourage us to participate in politics, and they should.
Q: Are there examples of places where that culture has taken root?
In Australia, voting is mandatory (there's a little fine if you don't vote). But it's also hugely celebratory. So, after you vote there are picnics and everybody serves “democracy sausages.” Many societies have festivities associated with voting and elections. In the United States that used to be the case too, with a lot of political activities as well as celebrations. Now, in some ways it's hard to get away from the partisan aspect. So, if you do a Get Out the Vote picnic in the state where I grew up, Oklahoma, chances are you'll get a lot of Republican voters, and if you do it here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, chances are you'll get a lot of Democratic voters. That's how the numbers fall, and people know that of course. But I think the important thing is that we should create celebrations and opportunities and a culture of voting for everyone because doing your political duty as a citizen is more important than your particular political orientation. I think that in the United States, we need to get to a place where being American is more important than being a Democrat or a Republican.
Q: You were one of the driving forces behind the Harvard Votes Challenge, which aimed to register 90 percent of eligible students at the School for the 2018 midterm elections. Did you think it was going to work? And why did it?
I was probably about 70 percent confident that we'd get to 90 percent; but I was 100 percent confident that we'd learn a lot. And we did learn a lot. I think the core piece is mobilized, dedicated, and energetic student leadership—that's the heart of it. Student leaders invested many, many hours and a lot of their brain power in figuring out how to get this done. It's far more effective for students to ask other students than it is for faculty or staff to ask students to register—and more appropriate I think. Another important leg is enthusiasm and support from the School leadership, especially from Dean Doug Elmendorf. That went a long, long way. The third element is Teresa Acuña MC/MPA 2017, who's the associate director for Democracy Programs at the Ash Center. She helped to organize and facilitate many of the events and operations. Also, we used TurboVote to register students. TurboVote is a civic technology startup that was created by Kathryn Peters MPP 2011 and Seth Flaxman, both MPP 2011, which takes the friction out of voting. It also provided a lot of data, and that helped students and staff focus their efforts on parts of the student body that were getting off to a slower start and needed more assistance and encouragement. And so the data turned out to be really, really important.
Q: In these very divisive political times, what is the value in focusing on voting and civic engagement?
So in the bigger picture, this effort to get to full participation addresses two big problems on the American political scene. One is polarization, where about 45 percent of the country strongly leans to the right, and 45 percent leans to the left. What political leaders and citizens agree to politically is shrinking to what feels like nothing. The second is this sense that we feel like our primary political and civic obligation these days is to fight for our side, rather than to fight for American democracy. So, I think that increasing a sense of civic responsibility—that is our responsibility to the Republic as a whole, rather than just to partisans of one side or other—is very, very important. And I think it's important to find those areas of overlap in which nearly all Americans agree. I hope that the idea that every American has a right and a responsibility to participate politically—by voting, but in other ways also—is something that everyone can agree upon, and that we can build on that to create a thicker civic culture and sense of civic responsibility.