Harvard Kennedy School Hosts Event on “Getting to 80 Percent”

[Image by yours truly from Ash Center program]

This post originally ran in the May 10, 2018 electionlineWeekly.

Many(!) years ago, I worked on a statewide campaign in my home state of Virginia – and as part of preparations for Election Day, I met a local activist in Farmville to discuss GOTV.

As the conversation started, he asked me, “do you know what GOTV means?”

Now, I’m no political expert (fact check: I’m still not), but I felt pretty confident about this one – I answered, “it means Get Out The Vote.”

He said, “That’s what it stands for. What does it mean?” Seeing my blank face (fact check: I still have that, too), he smiled and explained “GOTV is the process of turning peoples’ GET-OUT into a VOTE.”

In other words, he went on, GOTV is the process of turning all that enthusiasm that’s been generated during a campaign – for your candidate, against your opponent, whatever – into an actual vote on Election Day.

I thought about that conversation a lot last week when I had the good fortune to join a meeting at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government focused on improving voter turnout – to unprecedented levels. Entitled “Getting to 80 Percent” and sponsored by HKG’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School; and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, the meeting brought together folks from across the country to talk about what it would take for the country to undertake what organizers called a “moonshot” goal of 80% participation – which is especially significant given survey data showing the strong recent uptick in interest in elections among many sectors of the American public.

Here’s the overview from the meeting page:

A persistent and deeply troubling problem of American democracy is low voter participation. The US ranks 28th out 35 OECD countries in voting turnout–55 percent of voting age population in 2016. On the presumption that this is unacceptable, and we want the widest possible participation in American democracy, what would it take to seriously move the needle on this issue, to have 80 percent of Americans voting?  What policies could really work?  What cultural shifts do we need to make? How can new technologies and platforms be best utilized? How can young people become a new civic generation?

During a one-day intensive session at the Harvard Kennedy School, journalists and media, technologists, business leaders, elected officials, scholars, and grassroots advocates and organizers–all passionate about American democracy– will convene to talk about pushing the envelope and sparking the cultural and policy shifts we will need to increase voter participation in a major way for our country’s future.

The day was organized around a series of sessions where participants had an opportunity to discuss different aspects of the participation challenge:

Reimagining Participation: Creating a Culture Shift

We are entering a new era of civic engagement where influencers are creating new ways to inspire voters.  How can we continue to shift the way voting is perceived throughout sectors of society, from business leaders incorporating voting as a social responsibility to cultural influencers raising the profile of civic duty? 

Leading the Way: Technology and Social Media as Participation Innovators

Innovations in technology and social media have revolutionized the way citizens are informed and participate in democracy. How can we lift up what’s working and conceptualize ways for new technologies and social media platforms to encourage more voter participation?

The Change Generation:  Young Americans and Participation

We know that people become life-long voters when engaged in civic duty early in life.  Students are building momentum in turning their peers into voters.  How can we build on the momentum across college campuses and elsewhere in registering voters and how do we support their power to organize and achieve higher participation?

States at the Cutting Edge

Some states have adopted multiple policies to encourage voting, others lag way behind.  Can we lift up the examples of states who have achieved significant voter participation increases, looking at the technologies employed, the policies adopted, and the political and cultural conditions that made voter increases possible?

Closing the Participation Gap: Mobilizing Non-Voters

Do we know who is not voting and do we know why?  What strategies have been successful in engaging these voters and increasing their representation at the polls? 

The Policy Landscape: Universal Registration, Universal Voting

In addition to taking down the current barriers to voting, can we advance the conversation around policies to make voter registration truly universal?  Can we explore possibilities for putting the idea of universal voting into the public debate?

It was an incredibly lively day of discussion – and here’s what I got as the top-level takeaways:

  1. Improving participation to 80 percent isn’t an immediate or short-term goal – but it’s still important as an antidote to cynicism and a way of thinking about engaging more Americans in the democratic process;
  2. One of the most effective things anyone can do to encourage voting is simply to ask – and reach beyond so-called “high-propensity voters” to those to rarely vote or never have before.
  3. Voters need a reason to vote beyond simple exhortations to exercise their rights – making the connection between elections and public issues of importance (education, taxes, immigration, public safety, etc.) helps establish that voting is an opportunity and not just a duty;
  4. States and localities are creating more opportunities for people to cast a ballot on and before Election Day and are developing tools to let them learn about the process – and thus everyone can help individuals manage their own voter’s journey by encouraging them to “be a voter” and be ready for Election Day.

Thanks to everyone at Harvard for organizing the event. It was a fantastic day; obviously, “getting to 80” is a huge goal but it’s worth it. It’s no secret that levels of energy (i.e., “get out”) are higher than ever before – all that’s left is for the community to come together and turn it into votes.

Have a great weekend and stay tuned!

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