The first time I voted, I was in college. The polling place was the rec room of a dorm.
I remember being surprised as I walked in that the accommodations weren’t nicer. I had grown up in a Pennsylvania village where voting was a serious adult occasion. What was up with these rickety booths with the cheap paper bunting? Democracy, I remember sulking. Downsized just as I get to the party.
Nonetheless, it was the 1970s and people my age now could vote, and that was something. Though I hadn’t done nearly enough required reading, just holding that ballot full of presidential contenders was a rush. This mattered.
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I’ll never forget how differently I felt leaving that building: One minute, I was a bell-bottomed kid, and the next, I was, just maybe, a person of substance – someone who had been asked for an opinion, and heard.
Most people feel that sense of importance when they cast a ballot. It’s a great feeling. Yet every election, all we hear is how hard it is to get people to vote.
Depending on which expert you talk to, between 40 and 50 percent of California’s registered voters are expected to stay home on Tuesday, par for the course in a democracy in which participation has been declining for decades.
“Overall, we just don’t turn out at the rates we did 40 or 50 years ago,” said Mindy Romero, the UC Davis Center for Regional Change’s director of the California Civic Engagement Project. She and other researchers have heard all the reasons: The politics are too contentious and the negativity is a turnoff. Or the politics aren’t contentious enough and voting is no fun without a horse race.
Or the media are biased. Or the media are so neutral that the news is boring. Or voting back home wasn’t encouraged. Or life is just hard and who, off the top of their head, remembers the deadline for voter registration?
And that’s just the beginning. On Saturday, I followed Rep. Ami Bera around Elk Grove as he walked his diverse suburban precincts, and though most folks greeted him like a celebrity – the market has been saturated with TV ads for and against him and his Republican challenger, Doug Ose – at least one voting-aged person on every block was thoroughly detached from the election.
An African American guy said he was a Jehovah’s Witness and voting was against his religion. An Asian American guy shrugged when asked whether he’d vote, then shook his head, which was covered in a backward Giants cap. A Philippine-born housewife climbing into an SUV said it felt wrong to vote when she didn’t understand the issues.
Then there were those who had registered, but hadn’t gotten around to casting ballots. “We’re refinancing and as soon as we finish the paperwork, you’re next on the list,” vowed a white accountant named Tracy.
Bera smiled and nodded, and reminded her to use two stamps if she was planning to mail in her ballot. A few feet away, his 26-year-old campaign manager, Danny Kazin, made a note on a clipboard to get back to Tracy before the election.
Next to her name was a host of data points, from her age (44) to her attitude about Bera (positive, the last time someone from the campaign had asked her). It was just one entry among thousands in the hotly contested 7th Congressional District, where Kazin reported that the campaign had made 650,000 phone calls and 200,000 house calls, and deployed 4,000 volunteers on 11,000 get-out-the-vote shifts.
Micro-targeting plus personal contact, he explained. That’s the 21st-century election weapon. And in an era when life seems increasingly funneled into digital screens that get smaller and smaller, shaking hands – or “campaigning the old-fashioned way,” as Bera kept telling people – did seem to remind people that it was also possible to make bigger, deeper connections.
But it also underscored a fact of life in get-out-the-vote land: A lot of people view voting as a chore, with surprisingly dull trappings. And some can’t imagine who’d care if they didn’t do it.
That’s why voter suppression laws in places like Texas are so diabolically effective, and that’s why it always seems to take a village to get out the neighboring village’s vote.
So what to do?
“That’s the $64,000 question,” Romero said. And it may be, someday: Los Angeles has been talking about adding a lottery to their municipal elections, automatically entering voters in a cash prize drawing if they just please, please show up at the polls.
Failing that, though, California for years has been long on suggestions: Open primaries, to add horse-race potential to low-turnout June ballots. Same-day registration, which is slated for rollout in the 2016 elections.
Los Angeles County has hired IDEO, the creator of the stand-up toothpaste tube, to make its voting machines more universally friendly and, perhaps, adaptable someday to online voting. And there is talk of uncoupling voting from the precinct model, allowing people to cast ballots over a period of weeks at regional voting centers.
“People talk about all the usual things – expanded voting hours, absentee voting – and I wouldn’t argue with any of those answers,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
“But as important as it is to make voting more convenient, that’s not our biggest challenge. Our biggest challenge is motivation.”
Schnur thinks we should target young people in high school and motivate them early. Some might see this as a stretch: Motivating kids is, as any parent knows, a delicate mission. And a study released last month by UC Davis’ Romero found that of the Californians under 24 who were registered to vote this summer, only 6.9 percent turned out for the primary in June.
But it might work, for people of all ages, if we talked more about democracy’s least-discussed upside: the rush of being a serious part of something bigger.
Until I was asked, until I had actually given an answer, I didn’t know how great it could feel – even in a drab campus rec room – just to have voted.
And once I felt that, all I wanted was to feel it some more.
Follow Shawn Hubler on Twitter @ShawnHubler.