Get ‘Em Young (cont.): Ridgefield, CT High School Interns Recommend Changes to Improve Turnout

Ridgefield.CT

[Image courtesy of wikimedia]

Longtime readers of this blog know that I am a fervent advocate of “get ’em while they’re young” – raising the profile of election administration among young people and encouraging them to pursue projects and opportunities that will open the door to a deeper involvement with the field.

That’s why I was so interested to see news of two Ridgefield, CT high-schoolers’ efforts to improve voter turnout in their hometown. The Ridgefield Press has more:

Voting — a responsibility that is the foundation of democracy, and a privilege envied by societies that are less free — is ignored by many Americans, by many Ridgefielders.

In an ambitious report to the selectmen, two high school interns documented the breadth of the problem — from turnout of less than 10% at the last budget referendum to chronically poor participation by younger voters — and proposed a “three-pronged strategy” to address the situation.

“Australia, Belgium and Chile, voter turnout hovered near 90% in the 2000s. Other countries, like Austria, Sweden and Italy, experienced turnout rates near 80%,” Austin Langer and Caroline Treschitta said in their report to the selectmen. “…While in the U.S. about 60% of the voting eligible population votes during presidential election years, and about 40% votes during midterm elections.”

Ridgefield’s voter turnout ranged from 53% to 64% in the five congressional elections between 1998 and 2014, while the town’s turnout in the four presidential years ranged from 83% in 2012 and to 89% in 2000, they said.

The students dug into recent turnout statistics and conducted a survey of town residents:

Treschitta and Langer conducted a survey, asking people their recent voting history and trying to find out what kept people from voting.

“The common responses of people who did not vote were people were not aware that a vote was occurring, people did not have a strong understanding of the issues, and people found the date, time and location inconvenient,” the report said.

From this the two interns developed their three-part strategy to improve participation in town votes through:

+ Raising awareness;

+ More accessible voting;

+ Showing the importance of town government.

For raising awareness and highlighting the important of government, the students proposed three different approaches: a town Facebook page, automated “robo”calls to alert voters of upcoming votes and a smartphone app that would pair with a redesign of the town website to make all town info – including elections – more readily available, especially to young people.

As for making voting more accessible, they proposed the following (note that they included cost estimates – be still my geeky heart):

For “more accessible voting” they looked at the cost of having all three polling places open, even for lower turnout votes such as budget referendums.

Currently town referendums usually have everyone voting at Yanity gym, while state and national elections use three polling places — East Ridge Middle School, Scotts Ridge Middle School, and Yanity Gym.

Costs with one polling location are $2,527, they said, and with three polling sites the costs are $6,862.

So the added cost of using all three polling places every time would be $4,334 per vote, the interns projected.

“If you implement our strategies in the next referendum you’ll see increased voter turnout,” Treschitta told the selectmen.

Town leaders were very complimentary about the report, though they did have a few questions:

The report was praised and applauded by the audience at the June 10 selectmen’s meeting.

“It’s a great report,” said Selectman Andy Bodner.

He raised a concern with the interns’ suggestion of targeting reminders like emails or robo-calls to specific low-turnout groups such as younger voters, or unaffiliated voters.

“I wonder about the legality of targeting groups,” he said. “Parties can target groups. I don’t know if that’s the role of town government.”

First Selectman Rudy Marconi thought the idea of reducing confusion about polling places, by always opening all three locations, was worth more study.

“Should we open three polls consistently, so people aren’t confused?” he said.

Marconi said later that he’d consider the interns’ recommendations on ways to increase people’s knowledge of town issues and votes.

[Side note: I do wish I’d been there to see – or that the Press reporter had gotten – the students’ reaction to this statement:

Town Deputy Emergency Management Director Dick Aarons was at the meeting, and challenged the two interns to consider a different perspective.

“Have you given, philosophically, any thought to the idea of why we would want people at the polls who haven’t informed themselves?” he said. “Isn’t it better if they just don’t turn out?”

It’s good that the students heard this argument – that the system doesn’t want the “wrong” voters at the polls – because it often drives political rhetoric and decisions at every level.]

Efforts like this give me hope and reconfirm my commitment to bringing new blood into the field of elections so that enthusiastic young people like Caroline Treschitta and Austin Langer can be exposed to the wide range of experiences and expertise existing election officials nationwide use every day. Congratulations to them and thanks to the Ridgefield town for giving them the space and the airtime to share their views.

I’ll be watching to see what, if anything, comes of these recommendations in Ridgefield.

Stay tuned …

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