By: Nick Santangelo

In some countries, Election Day is a holiday. The United States is not one of them.

Election Day 2018 is Tuesday, Nov. 6, and Americans who want to vote will have to find a way to get away from work, school and other responsibilities to get to the polls. That’s easier for some voters than it is for many others.

But it’s imperative that as many voters get to the polls every November as possible. And since this year is a midterm election, it’s even more important than it was last November. In addition to many important local and state races and issues, midterm elections decide whether or not Congress will have the power to be a check on a president’s last two years of his/her term.

Due to factors like misconceptions about voting rules and eligibility as well as inabilities to get to the polls, however, Chief Operating officer for fundraising firm J & S Strategies Dom Miller, FOX ’97, explained that many Americans who are eligible to vote don’t do so. In fact, Heart of the City Radio Host Malik Boyd, LAW ’16, stated that only about one in five Philadelphians vote each November. This lower voter turnout, Miller noted, usually favors one of the two major American political parties over the other.

Miller and Boyd were speaking as part of a panel at a recent College of Liberal Arts Master of Public Policy event at Temple University Center City. Co-hosted by NExT Philadelphia (formerly the Urban League of Philadelphia Young Professionals) and Young Involved Philadelphia, the event examined the reasons why many Philadelphians don’t vote and explored potential solutions for getting them to do so.

"Voting in every election is a critical step in the Urban League of Philadelphia's work to empower Philadelphians around education, workforce development, health and wellness, and affordable housing, which are important pillars for us," said Urban League of Philadelphia President and CEO Andrea Custis. "This event–executed by NExT Philadelphia's young, professional volunteers–illustrates our commitment to connect citizens to the issues and resources to help them exercise their civic duty.”  

Opting in, Reaching Out

In countries like Australia, citizens are spurred to exercise their own civic duty through mandated voting. Boyd asked the panelists if that was a viable option for the U.S. Managing Attorney of Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity Zane Johnson quickly rejected the notion. Instead, he recommended three E’s: education, engagement and empowerment. Johnson believes that sort of strategy will help people understand why it’s important for them to vote. For regular voters, the reasoning might seem obvious.

“I didn’t start voting until very recently,” he admitted. “For a long time in high school and college I kind of felt like, ‘What’s the point?’”

Johnson saw his opting out as a way of rebelling against a system he felt didn’t represent him, but he came to realize that people had fought and died to give him the right to vote. Now he sees that voting against people and ideas that don’t serve his interests is a more effective form of rebellion.

But an audience member said many citizens still feel the same way Johnson used to. They see incumbent victories as near guarantees. And when they feel those incumbent politicians haven’t done anything for them, they see no point in voting. Boyd asked the panel how those feelings can be overcome.

To Miller, it’s important to first take a step back and realize that many politicians only speak to voters when they want their vote. “People don’t hear from their elected officials any other time,” he said. “They don’t hear from their elected officials when they’re trying to save their house, when they’re paying taxes. They don’t hear from them when they’re having employment issues.”

This is particularly a problem for Pa. state representatives, explained Boyd. The system limits their terms to just two years, so they spend one year on the state’s House floor while primarily dedicating the other to campaigning for re-election. Miller, while admitting he’s maybe a bit naïve after spending only three years involved with politics, said he wants to see politicians spending more time working to improve their voters’ lives. After all, isn’t that why they’re elected? 

Looking Inward

It’s possible that this is the wrong way to look at things. Instead of holding the politicians more accountable for reaching out to voters, an audience member argued we should dig into our phones and hold our contacts more accountable every Election Day. Another audience member agreed that we’re putting too much faith in politicians to assume they will govern the way we want them to on their own. Instead, their constituents need to hold them accountable and engage them on the issues.

Johnson cautioned that either way, it’s important that voters not to put the onus entirely on someone other than themselves. Instead of asking who isn’t pulling their weight, he said, we should ask whom we can get to pull the weight along with us.

Boyd took the opportunity to ask the audience how many held shares in a company. Four hands went up. He then asked which audience members vote. Nearly every hand went up. Boyd had caught the audience in a “gotcha” moment.

”If you vote,” said Boyd, “you are a shareholder in the corporation known as the United States of America.”

Continuing the metaphor, he noted how some shareholders attend every shareholders’ meeting, while others only do so occasionally or not at all. When it comes to voting, those with a bachelor’s degree or higher tend to be the ones who vote in every election.

Bridging the Divide

When an audience member suggested that voting is really easy, Boyd challenged that assertion. Another audience member said it’s only easy if you understand the process.

“It’s just about an economic divide,” suggested Miller. “People who have higher education usually have careers that are a little more flexible, allowing them to leave when they need to vote and not having their pay docked. The mom with six kids working hourly needs every single hour she works.”

Wrapping things up, Boyd asked Miller and Johnson what the takeaways were from all of this information.

“It’s less about asking who’s not doing what,” said Johnson, “and more about asking what am I not doing and what can I be doing.”

He recommended people think less about the end result and more about the process of how they can personally help people get to that result. In closing, Miller echoed Johnson’s sentiments, saying people need to look inward for how they can help their peers to get registered and to understand the ballot.

“We take for granted that the people we see every day don’t even know anything about voting, and we can be the ones who can push them.”

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