By Seth Flaxman, co-founder and executive director of Democracy Works
Nearly two months on, we can start to see the effects of the Brexit vote. No matter where one stood on Britain leaving the EU, the decision was made by those that showed up to the polls. The Britons who didn’t participate woke up to the enormous consequences of their decision to let others speak for them. To name just one demographic, voters 18-24 were 75% in favor of Remain but only 36% participated.
The Brexit should be a wake up call to strengthen democracy. Over the next few decades, every nation will confront enormous decisions. Decisions without precedent, problems without playbooks. Get used to pundits referring to every election as the most important vote of our lifetimes. This is the new normal; a future where hugely consequential elections tackling complex issues will fall like relentless blows. For democracies to survive this future, the voting public must be more informed and more engaged than ever before. Is U.S. democracy, the oldest continually functioning democracy in the world, up for the challenge?
In a word: no. The United States ranks 138th in turnout among democracies worldwide, as measured by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance over the past 50 years. That means only about half of us are participating in presidential elections, around 40 percent in midterms, and often only between 25 percent and 5 percent in local and primary elections. These are crisis levels of turnout. In a democracy, sovereignty must originate with the people, and elections are the ultimate source of legitimacy. Continuing into this new era with such low engagement puts the legitimacy of our democracy at stake.
Democracies also work better when the vast majority of citizens are pulling the lever. Some of the biggest problems in our democracy are enabled by low turnout. Corrupt party bosses, major donors, special interests, all of them can more easily manipulate the outcome of an election when turnout is low. It should come as no surprise that politicians refuse to compromise for the common good when only a small fraction of the most ideological voters participate in the primary elections that put them in power.
Yet, it’s still not too late. Our society can take big leaps toward mass engagement even without the help of politicians. This past March, Starbucks and a dozen other companies launched the TurboVote Challenge, a moonshot goal to reach 80 percent voter turnout, using their brands and businesses to engage customers and employees in voting. This is the first phase of the moonshot, and it’s, in part, meant to redefine voter engagement as a responsibility of every sector, not just government. As Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said of his company’s efforts, “It does not matter if you are a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent. Our intention is nonpartisan, and it is simple: by helping to increase voter registration and participation, we believe more people will have an opportunity to make their voices count.” 100 percent of Americans are served by at least one major corporation, so if companies helped educate citizens about voting, we could reach all 219 million Americans eligible to vote.
Then, this June, Harvard set the bar, becoming a national model for campus voter engagement overnight. Each semester, all Harvard undergraduate students must complete a mandatory “check-in” process prior to arriving on campus. Beginning in the fall of 2016, that process will include giving students the opportunity to register to vote in any state, request absentee ballots, or receive text and email updates reminding them of upcoming elections. There are over 1,500 institutions of higher education in our country. All of them can be centers of civic education in addition to places of learning. All should inspire students to become informed voters.
What would it look like if every American institution, private and public, took on the same responsibility? It would change our democracy forever, awakening a spirit of participation and citizenship nationwide. Mass engagement is possible, but it will literally take all of us. No less than the future of our democracy depends on it.