December 10, 2018

No Shame, No Blame: #GoVote!

Guest Column
By Gary Howe | Oct. 6, 2018

I cast my first vote in the 1992 election and brazenly wrote in Jerry Brown for president. Three weeks later, I took my 19-year-old self down to the city clerk’s office in search of evidence that my vote had counted. Sure enough, I found exactly one write-in for president in my precinct. Standing at the clerk’s counter, the reward neurons fired in my brain, and a lifetime of regular voting behavior was set in motion. 
 
Given the moribund voter turnout rates in the United States, it seems safe to assume that most of my fellow citizens have not enjoyed a similarly rewarding trip to the polls. Voter turnout rises to 40–60 percent for national elections when election news is inescapable, then drops back to 20–30 percent when “all” that’s at stake are local issues — you know, just the stuff that actually impacts us and the people we know and love, every day. 
 
Nonvoters have many good reasons for not exercising their right to vote: difficulty in registering and getting to the polls, feeling alienated from the issues, believing their vote doesn’t matter … . Physical and mental obstacles of all kinds cause voter’s block, but whatever the reason, it’s clear voting is not habitual for most Americans.
 
It doesn’t help that We The People have to contend with active and ongoing voter suppression efforts: gerrymandering, ID laws, limited access to polling stations, and voter roll purge are demonstrably effective. This year in New Hampshire, the state legislature passed a law aimed at making it more difficult for students to vote. Apparently, the Republican-led legislature is concerned about a 20-something wave, despite the group’s well-deserved reputation for low turnout (in 2014, just over 20 percent of registered 18- to 30-year-olds voted).
 
The good news is that true patriots on all sides of the political divide are working on pro-voter efforts, through legislative action or referendum, following the lead of states with the highest turnouts: Minnesota, Oregon and Washington, who have juiced up participation to the high 60–80 percentiles by allowing voting by mail and early voting, limiting barriers to voter registration, and providing accessible, well-staffed polling stations.
 
Michiganconsistently has average turnout. This past August, headlines in Michigan celebrated a historic high of 29 percent of registered voters casting a ballot. Celebrating less than 1 out of 3 registered voters actually voting seems like a very low threshold. We can do better, and this fall we will be asked to support structural changes that promise to help.
 
Proposal 3 is a ballot question led by the organization Promote the Vote. If it passes, citizens will: be registered automatically when they get a driver’s license or state ID; be allowed to register and vote on the same day; and, importantly, be allowed to vote absentee without an excuse. The latter is important because voting absentee allows people to study their ballot, research the candidates and proposals, and vote when it is convenient for them.

Traverse City’s Clerk, Benjamin Marentette, a supporter of Proposal 3, has for years been a leader in informing the public of their voting rights, including their access to an absentee ballot. The number of individuals voting absentee has risen by over 47 percent in the last four years. As a percentage of voters, absentee voters are likely to surpass 50 percent of the vote in the near future. 
 
There are inherent difficulties in fostering voting as a habit for more Americans. Habits require cues that spur routines that deliver rewards. This 1, 2, 3 behavioral loop was identified by research at MIT and popularized by Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit.” Cue, routine, habit. This habit loop exists whether we are trying to hit the gym, stop ourselves from eating an entire package of Oreos on a rainy Sunday, or getting out to vote each election.
 
Voting doesn’t fit nicely into this a habitual pattern. The cues are intermittent, voting is often difficult, and the rewards of voting are far from satisfying, and often lead instead to major disappointment. In fact, voter suppression campaigns very intentionally turn off voters.
 
Personally, there’s plenty individual patriots can do to turn out the vote and combat the negative aspects of the system. First, we can stop shaming nonvoters by recognizing the complicated reasons why some people do not vote. Seasoned voters can help others register, analyze sample ballots, and create texting networks of five acquaintances when voting starts, continuing with reminders until after election day. Ask everyone to join in a group pledge to vote.
 
Or, for lasting impact, considerdigging in even more and invite friends to connect to a local issue by advocating for something concrete in the community. When people realize the difference the right representation on a local council can make, they are bound to want more of a say in who’s voting on their behalf.
 
Election Tuesday is four weeks away. No shame, no blame. Just #GoVote!
 
Gary L. Howe taught in the Social Science department at NMC for 13 years and served as an elected official for Traverse City from 2013–2017, losing re-election by 28 votes. And he still stands by his choice for president in 1992.
 

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