Increasing Voter Turnout: It’s Tougher Than You Think
Increasing Voter Turnout: It’s Tougher Than You Think
In this 15-part series, election experts from government, academia, and the private and nonprofit sectors will weigh in on important questions, including: What can the social sector do to improve voter turnout in the United States?

I had the privilege of serving two terms as the chief elections officer in the top-voting-turnout state in the nation, Minnesota. During my time in that elected position I had to defend our approach to elections from vote suppression attacks several times, but mostly, I was able to concentrate my attention on a key concern here in Minnesota when it comes to voter turnout: disparity.

The high average of voting rates that Minnesota enjoys, and the bragging rights that come with it, can mask some troubling facts about voter turnout that we need to pay attention to here in our state—and, I would argue, in the whole nation. We need to look beyond averages to find out why some neighborhoods, small towns, and regions end up with voter turnout rates at or above the 90 percent levels achieved in some European countries, while in other towns and cities, and in some neighborhoods within these jurisdictions, the rates are much lower.

One challenge of having a “high” voter turnout average on a statewide basis is that it can lull us into thinking we are doing just fine. We work hard to make sure that the topic of voter turnout disparity is always central in discussion about voting in Minnesota, but it is not always easy to know exactly how to address this. In fact, the challenge of reducing and ultimately eliminating glaring disparities between urban and rural, black and white, older immigrants and newer immigrants, and, of course, between young adults and senior citizens is a topic of great concern to many civic leaders no matter the party affiliation.

During my terms in office, we had success with some targeted efforts to reduce disparities—starting with our campaigns to increase voting by Minnesotans serving in our nation’s military. In those campaigns, we found that some inexpensive policy changes—such as enabling our voters in the military to receive their ballot via email or fax and moving the date of our primary elections to make it possible to get ballots back from forward bases and remote locations—made a huge difference.

We also had the good fortune to participate in a pilot project, with some external funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, to make sure that new residents could get registered soon after arriving in our state. Both this project helping new Minnesotans and our outreach to military personnel were well received due to their non-partisan nature.

I also pursued a deeper understanding on how voting disparities come about and how we might tackle them by focusing on “high performing” areas and asking engaged voters for their input. Two specific episodes stand out in terms of giving me insights to guide my own efforts.

Here’s the first: During my first term I was at a public forum in the small town of Red Lake Falls, the county seat of Red Lake County, which borders the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

The voting rate in the Red Lake area is above 90 percent in presidential elections. So I asked the audience in a packed town meeting how they pulled it off: How did they have such a high voter turnout in the 2006 election with all the economic challenges that face their mostly rural and largely Native American population? It got dead quiet after I asked, enough to make me nervous about what faux pas I might have committed. Finally a young Red Lake Band member stood up and spoke. (I am paraphrasing a bit, since it has been nearly a decade and I don’t remember her words verbatim, but here’s what she said in essence.)

“Secretary Ritchie, when you drove into our town tonight you came right past the large white building that houses our American Legion. Inside is a very long list of the braves who have given their lives for this country.” She then pointed towards the ground and said, “ We love this beautiful place where we live, we love this country, we are very patriotic, and so we vote.” She then sat down and the entire audience, almost in unison, nodded in agreement.

Here’s the second: A few weeks later I was in another part of the state—near Duluth—at a Rotary luncheon. I was seated next to one of the leaders of the local Chamber of Commerce. Making small talk before the lunch was served, I asked a question similar to the one I had asked in Red Lake Falls: “How is it that a city like Duluth can have a voting turnout of 90 percent? That is unheard of in the United States!”  He did not waste one second before replying: “We love this state and we love this country and up here when we love something we take darn good care of it, and voting is one thing you have to do to take good care of the things you love.”

I had a very long drive home that night, giving me a lot of time to think about this conversation and about how it was so similar to my experience in Red Lake Falls. The young Chippewa woman and the older chamber of commerce president had both described an ethic, or a set of values, that explained, from their perspective, their high voting turnout. They loved this place they called home and so they felt a responsibility to take care of it—not just with words, but also with deeds. And both presented voting as an important way to take care of their home.

This is one aspect of what motivates people in very high voter turnout neighborhoods, towns, and cities to cast their ballots. Loving your home, feeling responsible for it, and making the decision to protect it by voting isn’t something we can bottle and sell, but we can promote the heck out of it if we figure out how. There is such good energy right now in the promotion of neighborhood and local food, music, etc. that I believe we have fertile ground for spreading a values-based set of ideas about taking care of each other, our place, and our politics.

We did not develop a fully formed action agenda to address disparities in voting while I was in office, but bits and pieces of a strategic framework slowly emerged, and this was one key pillar. And as long as we keep non-partisan voting rights front-and-center in the public realm we can continue to find new, more effective ways to bring each new generation of voters into our democratic process.