Nuts & Bolts: Inside a Democratic campaign: What if the government actually encouraged voting?

Nuts & Bolts: Inside a Democratic campaign: What if the government actually encouraged voting?

Welcome back to the weekly Nuts & Bolts Guide to small campaigns. Every week I try to tackle issues I’ve been asked about. With the help of other campaign workers and notes, we address how to improve and build better campaigns, or explain issues that impact our party.

While Democrats find themselves stalled by their own in the U.S. Senate, organizations like the Brennan Center for Justice recognize that the right to vote is under attack in America, putting our nation at grave risk of suppressing equality through unequal access to democratic participation. With HR-1 up in the air, in this “What If…” universe, what would happen if we treated U.S. elections as an important issue worth our citizens’ attention? How exactly would that work?

The law and incentives

The current law is structured to make sure that no organization can use direct financial incentives to get someone to vote. Specifically, (52 U.S.C. §10307) reads: 

§10307. Prohibited acts

(c) False information in registering or voting; penalties

Whoever knowingly or willfully gives false information as to his name, address or period of residence in the voting district for the purpose of establishing his eligibility to register or vote, or conspires with another individual for the purpose of encouraging his false registration to vote or illegal voting, or pays or offers to pay or accepts payment either for registration to vote or for voting shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both: Provided, however, That this provision shall be applicable only to general, special, or primary elections held solely or in part for the purpose of selecting or electing any candidate for the office of President, Vice President, presidential elector, Member of the United States Senate, Member of the United States House of Representatives, Delegate from the District of Columbia, Guam, or the Virgin Islands, or Resident Commissioner of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

You can’t pay a person to vote, or offer financial incentives (like a check or cash prize) to register to vote. There are a lot of reasons for this, all good, and primary among them is that such a law prevents billionaires from buying up state and local elections outright, or purchasing votes in key districts to swing federal elections.

On the other hand, there are opportunities where we could provide voters an incentive to vote—not by having an organization or individual pay for votes, but by offering voters and potential voters something Republicans claim to love: a tax credit for voting. Kimberly Wehle, a former U.S. attorney and a professor at the Baltimore School of Law, had this proposal in mind when she wrote for Politico:

Congress could amend the tax code to give each eligible voter a $50 credit for voting in national elections. Of course, politicians who wish to entrench their power through the disenfranchisement of new voters would block such legislation, and state-specific barriers to voting could complicate eligibility.

Colorado began the process

Before COVID hit, Colorado activists began working on working on undertaking this exact policy, putting in place a $40 state tax credit for those who voted in elections. COVID may have hindered the required signature collection, which prevented the proposed legislature from reaching the November ballot. Still, the initiative highlighted two important avenues to voter outreach:

First, there is interest at the state level, at least in Colorado, for initiatives that proactively encourage residents to vote.

Second, by taking steps that encourage constituents to participate in the electoral process, our state and federal lawmakers can show the people that government itself is interested in (and hopes to align with) the will of the people. 

Reducing voting age 

One issue that complicates voting is that young people are taught about the voting process without being able to engage in it for years afterward. Students do not walk through the process in a meaningful way, and as a result, they do not reliably become adult voters. In order to help change this, Grace Meng (D-NY) put forward a proposal to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16. Doing this would revisit the 26th Amendment:

“Our young people, including 16- and 17-year-olds, continue to fight and advocate for so many issues that they are passionate about from gun safety to the climate crisis,” said Congresswoman Meng. “They have been tremendously engaged on policies affecting their lives and their futures. Their activism, determination, and efforts to demand change are inspirational and have truly impacted our nation. It’s time to give them a voice in our democracy by permitting them to be heard at the ballot box. 16- and 17-year-olds are legally permitted to work and drive. They also pay federal income taxes. I believe that it is right and fair to also allow them to vote. Let’s let them be heard and make their voices count. Let’s give them a say in choosing who they want their government representatives to be. I’m proud to stand with our young people in introducing this legislation, and I urge my colleagues in the House to support it.”
“Voting is a habit, and research makes it clear that age 16 is a better time than 18 to establish that habit,” said Brandon Klugman, Campaign Manager at Vote16USA. “We need to pass Congresswoman Meng’s legislation to lower the voting age to 16 to increase participation in our democracy and to ensure that young people have a voice on the decisions that determine the direction of their futures.”

By making it possible for high school kids to learn about voting, and then actually vote in the next election, we engage more voters at a time period where their engagement matters. By allowing them to vote early, we let the future (our children) help decide what happens next. The rise of the internet, easy access to information, and the participation of the young is greater than it has ever been—making the consideration of a change in our voting age also a possibility.

Automatic voter registration

Currently, 20 states have automatic voter registration. In those states, voter participation also jumps, as noted by the Brennan Center. While there are some differences in how the systems work in each state, the end goal is very similar: AVR makes it easier for people to vote. FairVote expands on the reasoning for setting automatic voter registration as a standard:

Voter registration should be the mutual responsibility of citizens and their government.  The government should not only facilitate registration; it should actively register adults who are eligible to vote as part of its responsibility to have accurate rolls. 100% voter registration should be the goal.  Moreover, universal voter registration has the potential to bring together conservatives who are concerned about fraudulent voter registrations and liberals who are concerned about anemic political participation.

All of these are in the universe of “What if …” That is, what if … we encouraged our people to use their voting rights?

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