Did you vote in the last national election?
If you’re like most Americans, the answer is no.
Even with control of the Senate hanging in the balance, the 2014 midterm elections saw the lowest voter turnout since World War II, only 36.3 percent — a national embarrassment. For some citizens, the shirking of democratic duty may have resulted from a lack of interest. But others may have missed registration deadlines, got stuck at work or been turned away at the polls for insufficient identification. Our electoral system, after all, doesn’t make it easy.
“There’s a tradition in the U.S. about why we vote on a Tuesday. We vote on a Tuesday because in the 1700s that was super convenient. Sunday was for church, Monday you’d go down to the capitol, Tuesday morning you’d vote for whomever you wanted to vote for and you’d be back home for market day on Wednesday,” says Seth Flaxman, co- founder and executive director of the nonprofit Democracy Works. The problem? “It’s still fitting the way we live to the 1700s, and that’s so complicated to stay engaged in.”
Flaxman’s project is updating American democracy for the smartphone era. Nonpartisan, the group’s central principle is that voting should fit the way we live today. That’s why Democracy Works debuted TurboVote, an online voter registration and notification tool, as its signature app in 2010. All it requires users to submit is a name, the locale where they want to cast a ballot and a way to stay in touch. Reminders, unique to each jurisdiction, warn users when Election Day is close, so a voter can update his or her registration or apply for an absentee ballot.
Before the 2012 presidential election, TurboVote helped 200,000 people register. The app’s reminders helped ensure 75 percent of users that were first-time registrants voted. (Eighty percent of users who re-registered to vote actually cast a ballot.)
“It doesn’t make any sense that we can rent a movie or connect with friends or go shopping — do all these things that are arguably much less important than voting — a lot easier than we can actually interact with our democracy,” Flaxman says. “The only way democracy actually works is because people vote. So the easiest way we can get more people to vote in the U.S. is to modernize voting for the way we live.”
While a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, living on campus in Cambridge, Mass., Flaxman didn’t vote in several elections in his home state. “ I remember being angry when I realized how many elections I’d missed,” he says. Walking down the street one November, he noticed a sandwich board announcing that it was Election Day. “This is it?” he recalls thinking, noticing that the polls had already been closed an hour. “This is how I’m supposed to know how to vote?” So he reached out to fellow classmate Kathryn Peters and asked her if they could build a system to track election deadlines. “
That’s crazy that doesn’t already exist,” she said at the time.
Flaxman doesn’t see apathy or disengagement as reasons why voter turnout is low. “Consistently around 60 percent of voters say they didn’t vote for a collection of around a dozen different process issues,” Flaxman says. “If we can solve the process side of the equation first, that’s the easier way to increase participation, and it’s the way we can have a bigger impact immediately.”
This is particularly true for young voters, who spend a significant amount of their life online and find punching out chads in a paper ballot archaic.
Millennials, too, are “a generation that grew up seeing our politics not working,” Flaxman adds. For him, as for almost everyone, this failure was personal. Back in grad school, he couldn’t find a single national or statewide candidate who fully supported same-sex marriage that he could back. “At the time, my boyfriend — now husband — and I were driving up to Maine to help in the Prop. 1 vote, in favor of marriage equality. It lost and it opened up my eyes to there’s not always this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Flaxman says. “My hope is that if we can make voting easier, it will actually wake up people in government to who they need to serve. For me, a democracy that works is ultimately issue number one. The more of us who vote, the more responsive and representative our government’s actually going to be.”