With midterm elections taking place tomorrow that will decide many congressional, state house, gubernatorial, and local political races – including Connecticut’s – the voter turnout question returns: Will voters stay home on Election Day? Despite record turnout in the nation’s last two presidential elections, the reality is that only about half of eligible voters went to the polls. And no one expects a midterm turnout to approach that of a presidential year, which generates more excitement. Ways to increase voter participation are being explored, and with the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act coming next year, UConn Today turned to Tanya Rhodes Smith, director of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work at UConn’s School of Social Work, for her views on the importance, in a democracy, of making voting a habit instead of a chore.
Q. Experts say the U.S. ranks last in voter turnout among Western democracies in the G-7 countries. What can be done to help get more eligible voters to the polls?
A. We aren’t only last in Western democracies; our rates are lower than many war-torn countries. We rank somewhere around 120th in the world. Some countries, like Australia and many in Latin America, have compulsory voting. Other countries make voting easier by automatically registering citizens to vote. The most important way to increase participation in the U.S. is to make voter registration easier and more accurate. One approach is same-day voter registration, which is permitted in only 10 states, including Connecticut. Four of the top five states for voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election allowed same-day registration. Another way – early voting – can also increase turnout; voters in 36 states can cast ballots before Election Day via early in-person voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and vote-by-mail elections. Three states – Colorado, Oregon, and Washington – have mail-in only voting; other states have in-person and mail-in options.
Q. A recent Pew Research Center poll found just 15 percent of Americans following the 2014 midterm state and congressional elections “very closely.” Why don’t citizens care more?
A. Few may be paying close attention, yet spending this election could reach $4 billion – making it the most expensive mid-term election in history. Those who are paying attention know that a lot is at stake, given that the Senate has final say on Supreme Court nominations. The reality is that elections compete with major news stories like Ebola and national security. In this election there is no one issue that worries a majority of voters, or galvanizes those in the middle to get to the polls. Americans also, are increasingly frustrated by Congress and its inability to move beyond partisan politics to solve major issues. They see the effect of money and well-funded political interests on campaigns, and no clear party to blame for the big problems facing the country. As a result, there is this cultural/civic narrative that nothing voters do will change things. But the truth is that the votes do matter, and members of Congress know that.
Q. Polls show that very few Americans approve of how Congress is handling its job. Do such low approval ratings make it harder to get more people to the polls?
A. The people most likely to vote in our country are those who identify as being strongly conservative or liberal. It’s one reason why the rhetoric has gotten so divisive. Campaigns are firing up their core base of voters. However, there are fewer people who identify as being strongly right or left, and it’s those people in the middle who tend to stay home.
Q. It’s been hard to keep up with the number of voter ID rulings coming out of federal and state courts. Why is voter ID such a divisive issue?
A. The first voter ID law was passed in 2003, and by 2011, more restrictive ID bills had been introduced in 34 states. We are now seeing many state battles play out in the courts. On one side of the debate are those concerned about voter fraud, and on the other are those concerned with voter access. There is almost no evidence of widespread voter fraud in this country, and most Americans don’t understand the big deal about a photo ID. Yet it’s estimated that some 11 percent of Americans do not have a government-issued photo ID. To obtain an ID, you must possess an ID. Birth certificates can be difficult to obtain if you are a senior, a student, or poor. Many people live in states other than where they were born, so the process and cost for getting a birth certificate can keep many voters home on Election Day.
Q. Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill has said that about one-third of the citizens eligible to vote in our state are not registered. What is UConn’s Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work doing to boost registration?
A. We believe that social workers play an important role in bipartisan voter registration and civic engagement. Social workers have access to communities that are underrepresented, including young people, minorities, and low-income populations. One problem is that many social workers think that voter registration and education is in conflict with their 501(c)(3) status. We don’t agree, and are working to mobilize all our master’s-level students to run voter drives at the agencies in which they are placed or employed. Our goal is to develop a model that other schools of social work can adopt as part of their learning objectives. We also teach a two-hour unit on civics and legislative advocacy to all first-year students. Understanding how and why that training translates into increased political action is another focus of our work.
Q. Americans seem to be increasingly cynical about their ability to influence political leaders. What does the Humphreys Institute do to counter voter apathy?
A. While most people agree that voting is an important civic responsibility – even those who don’t vote – many people love to complain about politics and politicians but do little to affect the system. We’re always looking to connect social workers and communities to issues and legislation that directly affects them. Registering citizens and personally encouraging them to vote is perhaps the most direct way to fight voter apathy at the individual and community level. If we give them the information and tools they need to contact a legislator, advocate on an issue, or testify at a hearing, that person is more likely to be an active, engaged citizen.