Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson joins Kojo to discuss her new memoir and explore how her experiences growing up in Chicago frame her perspectives about race and opportunity in the United States.
Guest Host: Christina Bellantoni
Takoma Park just lowered the voting age to 16 for city elections. It’s one of a number of moves around the country to combat extremely low turnout for local races. We’ll explore the reasons so few people people cast ballots in state, local and municipal contests, and look at efforts to get more people to the polls.
- Michael McDonald Associate Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
- Rob Richie Executive Director, FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy
- Tim Male Takoma Park City Council Member
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the "PBS NewsHour" sitting in for Kojo. Last month, Anita Bonds won a seat on the D.C. Council in a special election, but only one in 10 registered voters cast a ballot. Last week, Eric Garcetti won the mayor's race in Los Angeles, only 19 percent of voters went to the polls there.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIVoter turnout in local elections regular falls in the single digits or the teens, well below the turnout when a government or president is on the ballot. Experts have theories about why that is: the decline of local newspapers and the lack of interest in nonpartisan races. But lawmakers are trying to find new ways to get more people to the polls for local races.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONITakoma Park City Council just lowered the voting age to 16 for city elections, hoping to get teens hooked on voting before they leave home for college or jobs. Joining me now to talk about all of these developments are Takoma Park City Councilmember Tim Male, who authored that legislation that was changed, Rob Richie of FairVote, and Michael McDonald, a George Mason University professor of government and politics. Thank you all for being here.
PROF. MICHAEL MCDONALDThank you.
MR. ROB RICHIEThank you.
MR. TIM MALEThanks.
BELLANTONIYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also always send a message through our Facebook page or send a tweet to @kojoshow. And we like to hear from you. Do you think 16-year-olds should be out there voting? I'm going to start with you, Tim. How does voter turnout in local elections compare with turnout for state and federal elections, and what has been the trend?
MALEI can speak to Takoma Park, where we had 19 percent turnout citywide in the last election in 2011. In the race that I was in, which was a competitive race, turnout was more like 35 percent because you had two candidates who talking about issues, going door to door all the time. And I think that's ultimately what you need in a local election, is you need issues, and you need good candidates. We have a lot of uncontested races as well.
BELLANTONIAnd, Michael, talk about what you've seen in elections and how that trend compares with state and federal races.
MCDONALDRight. So we have seen lower turnout, you know, in a broad historical context, we used to have higher turnout in state and local elections. In fact, at the very beginning and the founding of the country, state and local elections had higher turnout rates than the presidential election. It's kind of odd to think about that today, but things change. The country changed the way in which our politics changed, and political machines developed.
MCDONALDBut even in the era of political machines, when we saw turnout rates nationally around 80 percent of those eligible to vote, we still had very high and robust turnout for state and local elections, and that's because our politics were still organized from the bottom up. Now, there was some problems with those political machines: a lot of corruption, a lot of concerns about vote buying and other problems as well.
MCDONALDAnd so in the early 1900s, we had a series of reforms called the progressive era reforms, that were aimed at destroying the power of these political machines, but they also as a byproduct destroyed the power of these machines to mobilize their voters, their supporters. They destroyed the way in which our politics were organized from the bottom up, and instead, we had a system of politics and parties within this country where politics were organized from the top down.
MCDONALDAnd when that happened, that local connection was broken. And so when moved to having nonpartisan races and having the secret ballot and having direct primaries, a number of reforms, which have a lot of good benefits to them, they also broke this linkage between local politics and the national politics and the parties.
MCDONALDAnd more than anything else, I think, you know, if we wanted to go back to having extremely high turnout in this country and having high turnout in state and local elections, we want to think about how do we reorganize these state and local parties and reinvigorate a civic virtue in life within state and local communities so that people feel engaged and connected with the politics in a way.
MCDONALDAnd so maybe it's not political machines that can do that. And imagine we're going to talk about some of those reforms, but something like allowing 16-year-olds to vote is a step in that direction because now you're engaging education with 16-year-olds when they're in high school, when you have that opportunity to have that conversation with those young people. And that can then stimulate them to have a lifetime of civic virtue.
BELLANTONIReinvigorating, that's the big virtue. Rob Richie, is that what FairVote is trying to do, and what do you think about this?
RICHIEWell, I think Mike summarized it well, and Tim will be able to talk a lot about what's going on in Takoma Park. I think the dynamics are complicated by the fact that when we have partisan elections, which are, you know, create a more of the dynamic where you might have parties really mobilizing the vote. Generally in our country now, the Democratic Party really dominates cities, and so they dominate general elections in cities.
RICHIEAnd so you have very noncompetitive general elections. So then the primary means everything, say, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, you know, just had a primary in Pittsburgh, open seat race for mayor. And whoever won that Democratic nomination is very likely to become mayor, but turnout is really low in those primaries. So the parties aren't very strong within their own voting, and then that's all there is for the general.
RICHIEAnd then you have nonpartisan elections, but it's harder for people to know who's who, what the associations are, what the connections are to them, and it's a little harder for civic groups to be mobilized when they're not already mobilized. So the turnouts that are highest in this country in nonpartisan elections where there's really a vibrant civic culture, but it's all relative. We're talking about, you know, the top turnout for mayoral races being in the 40s, 40 percent of registered voters.
RICHIEBut we're seeing turnouts literally, you know, contested races for mayor of 7, 8, 9 percent of registered voters. We just had a contested race for mayor in Amarillo, Texas. City Council elections in San Antonio, single-digit turnout o registered voters. So the general thing is we could have turnouts -- other countries have turnouts of this level 80 to 90 percent of eligible voters.
RICHIEWhen we vote for president, we get, when we're lucky, about 60 percent of eligible voters. When we vote just for Congress and governor, about 40 percent of registered of voters or 40 percent of eligible voters, when we vote just for city elections, probably on the average of about 20 percent. You know, it just keeps dropping.
BELLANTONIAnd you even see politicians making decisions based on that when there's a special election like what we just had in D.C. Of course, people find it it's easier to win in that case, but it can also have a little bit of toss-up result as well. So, Councilmember Tim Male, let's talk about Takoma Park.
BELLANTONISixteen-year-olds can start voting. When -- why did you put this into place?
MALESo we've been having a conversation in the city about participation and inclusion for a while, and that covers all sorts of things. But one part of that is city government participating in democracy. And probably about a year ago, we started thinking about some ideas, and one of them was this idea of a right to vote resolution that we should call in our national, state legislators to do more to promote the right to vote nationally.
MALEAnd then we started talking to people locally. One of the ideas that popped up from teens was, you know, we can't -- why can't we vote? We've been in the city our whole lives. We volunteer. We do voter registration drives. We participate in our schools. We are in debate club. We have a mandatory class in city, local, state, federal government. You know, can't we participate?
MALEAnd so that started this conversation, and, you know, it went back and forth in the community for a number of months. We're not the first place in the world to do it. Some countries, like Nicaragua and Brazil, have been doing it for years and years and years. States in Germany have adopted a 16-year voting age in the '90s.
MALEThe country of Austria adopted national so in all elections voting age of 16. And so that gives us some evidence to say, you know, lowering the voting age, we just have interested people who want to participate. We also have some evidence to suggest that that's a good thing to do, that, if you let people vote at 16, they vote at pretty high rates.
MALEAnd they might stick with it.
BELLANTONIAnd already the state law allows you to sort of register to vote if you're going to be 18 by a certain time. Is that right?
MALEThat's right. In Maryland, when you're -- if you go to get a driver's permit, you can automatically sign up essentially. It's like pre-register at that point. And if you're 17 and a certain number of months and you're going to be eligible to vote in the general election, you can vote in the primary before that. So we've already sort of, you know, created these lines at the state level in Maryland.
BELLANTONIAnd how about to Michael McDonald here from George Mason. How likely are 16-year-olds to show up in turnout? I mean, yes, some are clamoring for it, but are they really going to be as engaged as other voters?
MCDONALDWell, it's an experiment, so we'll have to see over the long run. But we do have some evidence maybe not of 16-year-olds voting, but Tim mentioned something about pre-registration, which is a policy that a number of states have adopted. Florida and Hawaii were two of the first states who allowed 16-year-olds to register to vote so that when they turn 18, they will already be on the voter registration rolls.
MCDONALDAnd there are a lot of good benefits with those programs. Again, it goes back to this idea that you can have this conversation with the voters you have of these young people. You can have a chance to educate them about the voting process when they're still in high school and connect that with a class of some civic class of some sort of.
MCDONALDAnd so what -- when we're looking at -- when we looked at Florida for a study that I did for The Pew Charitable Trust, we discovered that people who -- young people who had registered when they were 16 did vote. In fact, they voted at higher rates than people who registered -- young people who registered after they were turned 18 by about two percentage points. And they didn't drop out off the rolls.
MCDONALDI think they were -- my expectation was when I first did this study was that these folks would be moving away to college, and, you know, they would drop off the voter registration rolls. And quite to my surprise, they remained on the voter registration rolls, and they continued to vote at higher rates throughout their lifecycle. So what -- it appears then that if you can have this moment when the students are in high school, some of them won't go on to college.
MCDONALDSome of them may go to community college locally or maybe they have to -- they have a job. But you've educated them at that point, and many of them are staying in their communities. And you engage them through this process of registering them and educating them when they're in high school. And it does stick with them over a longer period of time.
BELLANTONIAnd in Takoma Park, census data suggests we're talking about 200 to 300 16-year-olds that could actually be voting there. So are you a teen, and are you considering voting? What would you think about this, or do you know one? Join our conversation. 1-800-433-8850 or email email@example.com. You can also tweet to us at @kojoshow or put a comment on our Facebook page. And we're going to talk to Gregg in Brightwood, D.C. Hi, Gregg, thanks for joining us.
GREGGHi. Thank you very much. Very interesting topic, and it reminds me of in Fairfax County in the '70s we had a lot of activity with governments, organized on in Fairfax County one time had a voting school board member who was paid and was under 18 typically in their senior year. It got -- it motivated us to get a countywide effort to register 1,800 voters which -- or 2,200 voters to pass a bond referendum which would have not passed without it the first time in decades.
BELLANTONIWas that an elected position for the 18-year-old?
GREGGYeah. That was an elected high school senior from Fairfax County, used to serve. It became politicized, and the county chairman had abolished the seat because of other issues of -- so it went away. I don't think it's come back, but I'm wondering if there's anything like that in the metro area because it was certainly something that got us excited involved in the process and very active.
BELLANTONIRob Richie, you might have an answer for that?
RICHIEThey actually do that in Montgomery County and they have an election starting for sixth graders up through 12th grade. Every year, they elect a school board member who votes on about 75 percent of the issues that come before school board widely hailed as successful. And it is actually a very good practice the county is doing that they introduced these young people to voting on county voting machines once a year.
RICHIEIt's a great chance to actually use the voter pre-registration law when they're older to -- those who are turning 16 can start registering to vote. And Montgomery County and Maryland as a whole has this nice ways of introducing people to voting that, as Tim mentioned, 17-year-olds can vote if they'll be 18 by November. So half of the young people who will be able to vote in Takoma Park this November will also be able to vote next June in the primary election, which is everything in Maryland for many offices. And both parties embrace that.
RICHIEAnd I think it's a way, in some ways, to calm some of the conversation down. Some of these people think, like, wow, this is just incredible what this city has done. If you look at it in a sort of calm way, it's an extremely rational, sensible process partly because these young people are at home, they're in their community and they're very -- they're more likely to use that first vote opportunity than if their first vote is when they're older.
RICHIESo when you have a voting age of 18, it doesn't mean you vote on January of your 18th, you know, year. It's when the next election comes around. And sometimes that's not until you're almost 20 and you're in this transition time. So the data is pretty clear that this would be a way to catch people, introduce people to voting, introduce people to local government.
RICHIEAnd I think it's part of the whole series of things that the city of Takoma Park has done that, I think, is -- comes from thinking about what does it mean to have a right to vote not in a -- not in just like paper way. But that does it mean to really exercise that and to encourage people to exercise it and put the onus on decisions to disenfranchise rather than the onus on decisions to enfranchise.
BELLANTONIMichael McDonald, your take.
MCDONALDYeah. Gregg's question, more broadly, is asking what can we do to engage young people in civics at an earlier age. And going back to these pre-registration programs and the conversations ahead with election officials, both in Florida and Hawaii, again, two states that have had these programs for a long time, they have poll worker programs. So they go into the high schools and they recruit students to be poll workers. In many states, it's required that an individual be a registered voter in order to be a poll worker.
MCDONALDAnd so having pre-registration for 16-year-olds enables them under law to be a poll worker. And anecdotal stories here emerged. You have every poll -- polling location -- over 800 in Broward County, Fla. had a student poll worker. And as a consequence of the money that was raised from their volunteer activities, Palmyra High School was able to hold a prom with the money that they raised.
MCDONALDAnd also, you hear -- again, talking with these election officials, you hear about students who are first exposed to the election process being in those polling locations, and then they become interested and engaged. And then later, these election officials will see these students again being leaders in their community, and those students will, again, say you know what, I -- my interest was sparked by that experience of being a poll worker and being -- contributing back to our democracy.
BELLANTONIResidual effects. We will continue our conversation about boosting local voter turnout after a short break. Stay tuned.
BELLANTONIWelcome back. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the "PBS NewsHour," sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Takoma Park City Councilmember Tim Male, FairVote's Rob Richie, and George Mason University Prof. Michael McDonald about boosting turnout in local election -- elections. You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850, email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
BELLANTONIGet in touch with us through our Facebook page, or send a tweet to @kojoshow. And we've got a lot of calls. People are very interested in talking about this. We're going to hear from Daryl from Waldorf, Md. Daryl, your thoughts on whether 16 year olds should be able to vote.
DARYLI don't think 16 year olds should be able to vote before (unintelligible) either. At 16, you can start working. They have the taxes taken out of your check. But yet you can't vote for the people who are making those tax rules.
BELLANTONIFair point. Thank you, Daryl. I'm going to ask Grant in Fairfax, Va. Let's talk about what you've seen out there. Hi, Grant.
GRANTHey. So I'm a George Mason University student, and I sat in on a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors meeting to move the voting place to George Mason last year for the presidential election. And voting didn't go up with young people at all. How can we expect to raise voting amongst youth in local elections if we can't even raise it for presidential election?
BELLANTONIThank you, Grant. Michael McDonald is nodding over here for your question.
MCDONALDThis is a sore point for me too. Before Grant was out there doing that, I was lobbying the Board of Supervisors as well because George Mason's polling place was located far from the university. And it was really, in some ways, you might think, designed to lower turnout among young people at George Mason especially the campus has grown so tremendously. It's kind of residential population that looks much like other major universities in the country.
MCDONALDSo I'm glad that Grant was out there carrying the torch further. Redistricting gave us an opportunity to rectify that problem. But Grant strikes on something which is another issue that raised just recently when we had the Census Bureau report survey data about the 2012 election, and turnout among persons aged 18 to 30 dropped about 8 percentage points from 2008 to 2012.
MCDONALDSo it wasn't just George Mason University and who knows what would have happened at George Mason if they hadn't moved the polling place. We saw just a downward trend of disengagement among youth across the entire country, and that included battleground states as well. It wasn't just located in, you know, the far corners of the country.
MCDONALDSo I think a lot of people are going to be taking a look at this and thinking about -- especially as we're talking about this first opportunity people have to vote -- how important it is. If they don't do it, then you've missed somebody. You've missed that opportunity to engage that person. And with that failure to do that in 2012, it has important ramifications for future elections.
BELLANTONISo Takoma Park City Council Member Tim Male, you also put in place some other voting reforms beyond just the 16-year-old vote. And polling places do matter in that. Walk us through what Takoma Park did.
MALESure. So the other changes we made, we changed it so that if someone's not registered, they can show up literally on the Election Day, register, you know, prove their residency, register and vote that day. Something just designed to take out what is a small barrier out that all of the established councilmembers in the city have experienced. They've all had various residents say, oh, I'm not registered. I guess I can't vote. So that's one change.
MALEAnother change is that we're allowing people with felony convictions, who have served their time, who were out on parole to vote again. And actually, in public testimony before the Council, we had someone who fit that very bill. And then the other change that we're making and, frankly, one of the ones that I'm most excited by is that hopefully, in the next few weeks, we'll be adopting a change that would allow any candidate who is sort of signed up with City Clerk to have access to apartment buildings for set period before any local, state or federal election.
MALEAnd that means they can get in and access residents and knock on doors, just like they can for single-family homes. In a place like Takoma Park, 50 percent of our residents live in apartment buildings. And so that's a huge, huge change, and it would make a big difference.
RICHIEJust wanted to add to that that the conversation that Takoma Park City Council had, which I was pleased to have a chance to witness, I'm a Takoma Park resident as well head of FairVote, was really exciting in a sense that they were engaging with the subject, drawing from their own experience and coming out with ideas that just make a lot of sense. And they're going to sustain the conversation, so they're creating a voter turnout task force that will sort of institutionalize the conversation, look at how these changes work this fall, maybe make recommendations after, keep going on this.
RICHIEAnd it's -- we -- just to plug a little project of ours that people can tap into -- it's promoteourvote.com -- is encouraging that conversation with the same kind of resolution process and then trying to look at turnout changes. I think that the ideas coming out of Takoma Park are very likely to be replicated elsewhere, maybe in other cities, but maybe even statewide. And that's just one community having this conversation. So I think we'll see a lot of good ideas coming for -- going forward.
BELLANTONIYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Tweet to us, @kojoshow, or use our Facebook page. Leo in Wheaton, Md., has a question for our panel about the registration process. Hi, Leo.
LEOHey. How you all doing? Thanks for having me. I just want to -- that, you know, I very rarely call, but this one piqued my interest in that I just realized that a local library had switched over summer reading program to most of participants in the teen demographic by doing the registration online. And that, coupled with a mixed up I've heard about certain places looking to do what Takoma Park is doing, the change in the paradigm.
LEOAnd how they get folks out the bolster by changing the whole voting model, you know, switching from the old adage of coming in before work or coming in after work to a polling place to, you know, switching it up to see how we can get more people involved in the voting process, so I was just wondering what the panels thought.
LEOHave they heard, A, about any other type of models, some very provocative or way out-of-the-box ways to get folks in on the state, local and even national level, and also their thoughts about maybe going through online or app or iPod, whatever you want to say, in order to get not just teens but adults and voters of all ages. Thanks.
BELLANTONIThanks, Leo. And we definitely have lots of callers on all sides wanting to weigh in on whether 16-year-olds should vote and their thoughts on that. We'll get to them in a moment. Michael McDonald, Leo's question.
MCDONALDSo the Maryland State Board of Elections was very kind and shared with me some data about online voting experience in Maryland. Maryland is a state that just adopted in the summer of 2012 an online voting, online registration -- I should say -- tool. About 25 states now -- about half the states have adopted or will adopt some form of online voter registration. There are a number of states that are still debating this in their state legislatures. But many of these states look to going forward on this.
MCDONALDNow, the good benefits of this is that online voter registration, of course, can make it easier to register. It can clear up problems with voter registration when data errors and other things get in -- creep into the system. And it lowers costs, administrative costs for election officials. So that's why Republican and Democratic states are looking to adopt online voter registration. In fact, one of the very first states to adopt it was Arizona, of all places.
MCDONALDAnd we wouldn't really think of them necessarily as one that is very progressive in their politics. So this is really a bipartisan effort. And -- but there's some interesting dynamics here that might explain why Republicans are interested in adopting online voter registration because there's the familiar digital divide. And minorities, poor people, potentially are less likely to use, apparently, the online voter registration.
MCDONALDIn Maryland, the analysis I did, I saw that more Republicans were using the online registration and more Democrats were using the old paper and pencil form of voter registration. And so while -- all young people were using online voter registration. They're much more democratic than the general population. So certainly, online registrants were more democratic. There is this little tweak in there where it does seem to slightly benefit the Republicans as well. And that may explain why we see bipartisan support for this reform.
BELLANTONIThat's interesting. We will be returning to the politics of this in a moment. Michael in Fairfax, Va., would like to ask the panel what we've seen the longer term results here. Go ahead, Michael. Thanks for calling.
MICHAELHi. Thanks for having me on. It's an interesting topic, and it's certainly not a brand new one. Look, I strongly suspect that this is a partisan effort, mostly one dimensional and one sided to get younger voters into the process. Personally, myself, I don't think these kids have ran across the impact or the intersections in their lives of work, taxes, civil rights, civil laws. They'll get there, I just don't think they're ready for that.
MICHAELProbably, my biggest question right now is simple in this. Earlier, your group was lauding international and other state's efforts to bring a 16-year-old vote in. I'd like to hear if they had any evidence, as they were saying earlier, that it might actually stick with. So in Austria -- you said you had a national effort to put 16-year-olds at the polls. How about in some states in Germany? Has that stayed? What is the data showing that these efforts that took place in the '90s is actually bearing fruit now to show a higher voter turnout?
BELLANTONIThanks, Michael. Rob Richie.
RICHIELet me address the first part of the question also which is that this is not a partisan effort. And I think that, you know, Michael was mentioning voter pre-registration as a good policy allowing all 16-year-olds to pre-register. That, for instance, was passed with and entirely driven by Republicans in Florida, obviously, a state where people think a lot about elections and presidential votes.
RICHIEAnd, you know, a Republican legislature -- Republican governor put that in. And, I think, that the sense that all young people are going to be with one party is not something that all partisans believe. And it's certainly not our motivation. And I don't think the -- at all -- the one in Takoma Park. And I'll mention that, again, we have 17-year-old primary voting in Maryland that is widely embraced across both parties.
RICHIEIn fact, in '08, it was threatened by a administrative ruling, and both Republicans and Democrats said, no. We want our 17 year olds to be able to vote in the presidential primary. That was, of course, a pretty important primary back in February '08 on both sides. But on the particulars of Austria, I'll say some things on it.
RICHIETim might want to add to it. But the data shows that it's not an incredible shift, right? So we shouldn't overstate the impact. However, a very clear measurable impact of two things -- one, people are more likely to use that first vote. And they're more likely to keep voting as they older, which is exactly what we want.
BELLANTONILet's talk to Diane in Laurel, Md. There's been a lot of heated debate on both sides. Diane, where do you weigh in? Should 16 year olds have the right to vote?
DIANENo. And the reason that is is because of emotional maturity. When you're in that range, age range, the teenagers, they're still evolving into becoming young adults. And there's a lot of peer pressure still on teenagers to commit suicide. The teen suicide rate is still pretty high. And they already have their -- enough to try to get through life to just grow up to the adult stage. I don't think they need anything else, any more responsibility that they're not really ready for. I think that's something they need to be more mature for. And I think that 18 is just fine.
BELLANTONIThanks for calling, Diane. Councilmember Tim Male from Takoma Park, you probably heard a lot of arguments similar to that when you were debating this.
MALEYeah. I had to jump into the field neuroscience a little bit. And I reached out to some neuroscientists in the UK that worked on adolescent brain development.
MALEAnd, I guess, I won't pretend to be an expert on this, but the limited amount I was able to glean suggest that while there's -- there may be some immaturity associated with snap decisions, with sort of spontaneity, that the feedback I got from people was that there's no reason to think that a decision like this would be the same as the decision that you'd make when you're driving a car and whether to drive fast or slow. It's a different process.
BELLANTONIAnd there's plenty of immature 35-year-olds out there, for sure. Timothy in Arnold, Md., you have a different take. Go ahead, Timothy.
TIMOTHYHi. I just thought it was a really good idea to let 16-year-old vote because it will -- I think, we've got a lot of politically illiterate kids out there. And the reason they don't care because they can't vote. And they don't feel like they can make an impact yet. And eventually, when they get older, they're just not going to have time to politically socialize. I would say immaturity argument, I mean, I've got a job, I pay taxes, and I'm only 17. So I think I deserve to vote.
BELLANTONIThanks for calling in, Timothy. Appreciate it.
RICHIEWell, I would just add that that's a lot of what we heard in Takoma Park. And, I think, one of the -- I would suspect that if Tim had pulled his colleagues five months ago on this issue, it might have been 5-2 against it or who knows. But it wasn't a majority. They ultimately voted 6-1 for it, and part of that was the hard evidence.
RICHIESo you get past the kind of initial reaction of, wait a second, that seems a bit strange, to actually looking at numbers, looking at the broader analysis and then hearing from the young people that came forward to testify. There were many people -- I don't know -- 10, 15 people who are teenagers in Takoma Park who came forward and were just very well spoken, interested and really were showing that they would be, you know, capable, and there was a real commitment to reach out to other people of that age.
RICHIEI think one exciting possibility here -- and this is all with the implementation. But the fact that teenagers can reach out to one another -- they go to the same school, they -- same buses, they might be voting, they're going to talk to their parents -- there could be a -- this potential ripple effect that will help that age group vote, and maybe even older people as well, in a way that when you're a little bit older and you're not engaging across the town in the same way that -- this creates new opportunities.
MALECan I just jump in on that? The -- just going back to Europe for a second, what they find is that some of the very youngest voters -- 16, 17 and 18 -- actually have more knowledge about civic affairs than 19-, 20-, 21-, 25-year-olds. So, you know, that suggests this is a really good group to bring in.
MCDONALDSounds like it's one of those are you smarter than a high school senior game shows.
BELLANTONIYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Christina Bellantoni, sitting in for Kojo. We will continue our conversation about ways to get more people to engage in local elections in a moment. Stay with us.
BELLANTONIWelcome back. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS NewsHour, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Takoma Park City Councilmember Tim Male, FairVote's Rob Richie and George Mason University Prof. Michael McDonald about boosting turnout in local elections. You can join our conversation. Call 1-800-433-8850 and send a tweet to @kojoshow, or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
BELLANTONIWe have an email from Beth in D.C., who says that "Politicians like lower voter turnout. They are the politicians who believe their base will always turn out, so all they need to do is drive turnout down among other constituents." A lot of questions about whether younger voters would benefit one party or the other.
BELLANTONIAnd we're going to take a caller. I believe this is Charlie Comfort from Oskaloosa, Iowa, who I actually met covering the presidential caucuses back in 2007. And, Charlie, you're actually a picture of how you might not stick with one party if you're getting involved at a young age. Thanks for calling in.
MR. CHARLIE COMFORTHey. Thanks for inviting me, Christina, great to be on. You'd be correct. You know, just a little bit of a background, and obviously Christina knows this. But when I was 18 years old, I ran for local school board in Oskaloosa, and I won that election. I'm 20 now. I think what the city council has done here is just a great way to boost young turnout.
MR. CHARLIE COMFORTI think right now we have a crisis where young people are not getting involved in the -- people in general need to be engaging the young persons, showing them how local government is a great way where your vote really does count and you can really see democracy in action. And by giving a 16-year-old the right to vote, they can see exactly what will happen if they do get involved in the process. And who knows? Maybe we'll be creating younger leaders who want to run for young -- run for office at a young age like I did.
BELLANTONIAnd, Charlie, have you been seeing more young people turnout at school board meetings than you used to? I mean, you used to always show up, but you were kind of a loner there, right?
COMFORTRight. Yeah. I was a loner there, but I've noticed in the past couple of years, there has been a lot of younger turnout now, more at school board meetings, but also at city council meetings, and that's because our civics teachers are trying to engage our students and get them involved and give them credit for going to these. And so the younger people are starting to get involved, and they're becoming informed on the issues. Giving them the right to vote would just be the next step.
BELLANTONIThanks so much for calling in, Charlie.
BELLANTONISo, Councilmember Tim Male, are you seeing more turnout? I mean, they -- this has not gone into effect yet in Takoma Park, but are more young people getting engaged now that this is a possibility for them?
MALEI imagine they will. I would just say I looked back to when our charter, our city charter was last passed in the '90s. The very first note from the very first meeting of that year was comments about -- from a bunch of middle school students coming to lobby for the city to expand its recycling program. Earlier this year, we had Young Activist Club from Piney Branch Middle School coming to speak to us about a ban on polystyrene, polystyrene in their schools.
MALESo in Takoma Park, at least, we see teenagers, not all the time, but we don't see a lot of people all the time. They come in, and I think we'll see more of them once we make this change.
BELLANTONIRob Richie, do you think that civics education is as robust as it once was? And what are we seeing in schools, you know, now as students learn about the democratic process?
RICHIEWell, it isn't as robust as it once was, and I think that some places do better than others. In some places, it's really almost vanished, I think, from the curriculum. And I think that if we think of our schools and our young people being prepared to be citizens and active leaders of our democracy, if we think that everyone's a leader when they're voting, we don't seem to treat that as seriously as we should, nor really even treat the issue of low voter participation and these incredible disparities in voter turnout so that I -- like, one of the things that we did last year was we did a exit poll in a Takoma Park election.
RICHIEAnd just to show what some of those numbers were just briefly was that, for instance, 56 percent of the voters had a graduate degree in a ward where 10 percent of people have a graduate degree. But on age, we had -- more than 50 percent were over 50 in a ward where, you know, more than -- where 50 percent were under 30, you know? So it's like these kind of incredible gaps. And if we say, well, we want our young people to vote and participate, then these kinds of policies become a natural thing to look at.
BELLANTONIHmm. Matthew in Frederick, Md., wants to talk about what he saw in civics courses out there. Thanks for calling, Matthew.
MATTHEWHi. Yeah. I've lived in Frederick, Md., since 1996, and I was lucky enough to go to a private school, and even then the only thing I got was -- really got like the national, like, you know, executive, judiciary, legislative branches, federal government stuff. I have no idea how the federal government -- federal -- the Frederick government works. I mean -- and my sister who went to public school, she didn't even really get federal civics education. So, I mean, if that's the case for most of the country, it's not surprising that people don't vote because they don't even know how the system works.
BELLANTONIHmm. Thank you. Michael McDonald at George Mason, do your students come in prepared, knowing about their local government and how it works?
MCDONALDI'm really strict about how this is a chicken and egg problem. We know that politicians, you know, candidates for office will target their messages to voters because those are the people who will decide the election outcome, and it's very difficult to mobilize groups that aren't currently registered to vote. And so if you're not registered to vote, the politicians don't really care much about you.
MCDONALDAnd so it's a cycle of distrust that develops between voters and elected officials if -- and neglect when one doesn't see a benefit from the other. And so when I think about this and hearing some of what the callers have been discussing, it does seem reasonable that if we can engage young people somehow through, again, voting measures in Takoma Park and elsewhere, civics education in places, then we can break that cycle of disengagement, and that, again, would have very positive, long-term consequences.
MCDONALDNow -- and I do want to talk one other thing that's related to this which is this partisan divide that we've seen. When we look at the exit polls, that partisan divide between young and older people first emerged in 2004. So that's even less than a decade away now. It used to be that young people and older people had the same preferences over Republicans and Democrats.
MCDONALDIt's hard to believe that that's, you know, where we are now in our politics, that just less than a decade ago, we had a much different way that voters were looking at the two major parties in their demographic basis. And between 2008 and 2012, Republicans made slight inroads among younger people. And so there is nothing to say that over the next decade that this pattern that we saw developed over the last eight, nine years can't be undone, that the Republicans can't reach out to young people, they can't come back again thinking about this cycle of disengagement.
MCDONALDIf Republican's message to young people on policies that they care about, there is no reason that Republicans can't reach out to them just like we saw in the last decade. We saw this great change towards Democrats. There is no reason why we can't see that reverse.
BELLANTONIHmm. What makes you most likely to vote in local elections? You can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850. Lee in Southeast Washington is among those, who is a critic of the idea of letting 16 year olds vote. Lee, thanks for calling.
LEEHi. Thank you. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to make a comment which is also kind of a question that I think it's great this idea of 16 years olds, you know, learning in school, state, local governments, federal level, which I definitely didn't have when I went to high school. But also my question is, if this is happening, I know it's a great thing, but how are you making sure that the issues that the 16 year olds, 17 year olds are voting on are their to the least and not their parents because this is really embarrassing?
LEEBut in some ways -- I mean, I vote. And I vote at national elections. I voted in 2008 elections, and that was my choice. But when it get to local, I don't know why but I feel like I don't have enough information. So I'll call my mom and I'll say, Mom, who are we voting for? And she'll tell me, and then I'll go out for what and vote for that person. So how do -- due to specific show or not a show or maybe there just hasn't been even that collected, how do you know that the people -- the younger people that are voting are truly voting about what they believe versus what their parents believe?
BELLANTONIThanks, Lee. I'm going to first go to Councilmember Tim Male, who maybe can address that being a politician here in the room.
MALEYeah. I'd say I have no idea, but I don't have any idea for anyone else either. You know, I will just admit that myself as a voter, we get together with friends, and we talked about all the different races on the ballot -- county executive, members of the county council. You need a peer group in addition to the information you get from the media or from the candidate themselves to make a decision.
MALEWith teens, part of the peer group you could say in terms of being a voter are their parents. And it's not unreasonable for them to think of their parents as being reasonable people to get advice from or their other friends. Media is a piece of that, too.
BELLANTONIRight. Or they vote the opposite of their parent in some cases. Rob Richie.
RICHIEAnd I'll add that we're coming up on the centennial women suffrage in 1920. And, you know, many states like Maryland needed a constitutional amendment to start permitting women to vote, and that same argument was made, right. Women will just vote like their husbands or their sons or, you know, and, of course, that was half of the electorate. We're talking about 3 percent of the electorate here.
RICHIEBut the studies from where it's been put into place so that they are as independent in their thinking as an 18 and 19 year old. And so I think that that's a good sign. And it's obviously what we make of it and what they make of it. And creating access is a good thing. I'll just add that we also need to keep making sure that we create conditions that people want to vote and give them the real choices. And there's a whole conversation about whether we're doing that at any level of government right now.
MCDONALDOf course, your parents have an effect on you, of course. So -- and there have been a number of studies that have shown this in the realm of politics. But -- and that goes back to something that Rob mentioned earlier is that having the civic education within high schools and engaging young people is just one part of the puzzle. I mean, there is no silver bullet here that's going to solve lower turnout in local elections or national elections. It's a combination of things. So, of course, part of that conversation has to be between parents and children.
BELLANTONIPaul tweets to @kojoshow, "It's odd that more and more teens are being charged as adults in courts. But folks who support that think teens lack the maturity to vote." We have another comment about maturity from one of Councilmember Male's own constituents in Takoma Park. Hi, Karen. Thanks for calling. OK. We lost Karen. Sorry about that. Susan in Howard County, Md., let's talk a little bit about what you've seen. You're an attorney out there?
SUSANYes. I'm an attorney, and I've been a civic activist in my county for 25 years. And one of our main issues is getting the right to referendum over various types of local issues on the ballot.
SUSANAnd what I'm finding is people my age, over 50, well-educated, are getting totally turned off to the election process because time and time and time again, our local government has literally violated our charter and deprived people of the right to vote on local ballot issues by just making sure those ballot issues are those -- the original decision is not passing away that can be taken to referendum.
SUSANAnd we just got a decision by Maryland's highest court last week, which said the denial -- the circumvention and the denial of the right of referendum basically has no remedy because registered voters cannot even enter the courthouse door to challenge the denial of that right.
BELLANTONIThanks for calling on that, Susan. Appreciate it. We also have an email from Gregory, who's reminding us that national issues also affect young people from higher education, policy, unemployment, what you're seeing with Social Security, the student debt bubble, many other things that are affecting young people. Rob Richie, how do you see this debate evolving as we wrap our conversation here today?
RICHIEWell, I hope in two ways. One is I think on this local turnout conversation, we need to keep having it. We need it's, you know, it can't keep getting lower. It's just getting kind of abysmally just, you know, just incredible. And we're talking about more than 90 percent of people not voting. So I think we need a whole conversation, not -- we also need to talk about, you know, access, the right to vote, the Voting Right Acts but exercising the vote that we have.
RICHIEI think on the youth voting change, I think that it's one that my experience has been that the first reaction is surprise and bemusement -- negativity sometimes -- and the second look is, oh, that's a good idea. And I think that what we see in Takoma Park this fall will help inform that conversation. And I think that we may see a lot more of this happening.
RICHIEI've certainly have seen a lot of interest coming in particularly in cities, particularly from people concerned about this low turnout problem we have and interested in the idea that maybe we can use our schools and our opportunities to engage with young people to get them off in the right foot.
BELLANTONIWell, certainly, a very interesting conversation that you can keep going by emailing email@example.com, sending us a tweet and, of course, weighing on our Facebook page. We really appreciated the conversation about local voter turnout and how to boost that. Thanks very much, Takoma City Park -- Takoma Park City Councilmember Tim Male, FairVote's Rob Richie, George Mason University professor Michael McDonald. I'm Christina Bellantoni, sitting in for "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." And thanks for listening.
Most Recent Shows
Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, there's been a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiment here in the U.S., from posturing presidential candidates to everyday interactions between citizens.We discuss the current atmosphere for Muslim-Americans, and what it means for the future.
When Jesse Thorn's college radio show got picked up for national distribution by Public Radio International in 2007, he became the youngest national host in public radio history.
Gunmen launched an attack in Mali's capital on Friday. We explore the conditions that continue to fuel extremism in West Africa and the challenges of combating them.