Commentary: With democracy at risk, how do we get more people to engage and vote?

American voters are very concerned about the state of our democracy.  An NPR/Ipsos poll indicated that 64 percent of Americans believe that our democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.” The Quinnipiac poll says 67 percent believe that democracy “is in danger of collapse.” We’re told that “democracy is on the ballot.” If you google “democracy dying out,” you’ll get page after page indicating that the topic of the death of democracy is a major issue around the world.   

Here in Massachusetts, we perhaps should be picking out a coffin for it. Despite much concern about the future of democracy across the country, 3,677,963 Massachusetts registered voters did not vote in the primary, which had some very tight races.  That’s 78 percent of the 4,731,940 voters on the rolls. Only 22 percent bothered to cast a ballot, half by mail and half on election day. Adding to this concern is the fact that this election had the second highest turnout in a primary since 1990. 

In Boston, it was worse. Only 84,434 of Boston’s 444,493 registered voters cast ballots by mail or in person.  That’s 19 percent of registered voters. Eighty-one percent, or 360,059 registered voters, didn’t vote.  I cast my ballot at my polling place, and I was in and out in under five minutes.  I am retired.  I am not juggling work and childcare.  Still, many more thousands could have voted in this election if they believed their vote mattered and that voting itself is a civic responsibility and priority. Why are the majority of registered voters so disengaged from selecting their political leaders?   

Our democracy is expressed by voting.  Polls are open 13 hours on election day, and we all have the ability to vote by mail, as did half the primary voters in the state. If you don’t like the selection of candidates, you can just not fill in votes.  Blanks are calculated for every race and are used to determine the unpopularity of candidates.  

But there were significant races held on September 6.  Candidates spent millions of dollars to explain why they were running and where they stood on issues of importance.  Yet, a week before the election, a MassINC poll indicated that more than half of those who planned to vote in the Democratic primary hadn’t heard of many of the candidates.  Steve Koczela, head of MassINC Polling Group, told Politico that “with major turnover in state government, you’d hope for closely watched contests, but both of these polls show most voters know little, if anything, about the candidates running for several of these offices.”

So, what do we do?  One thing would be to prevail on media in Massachusetts to act like good citizens and cover political races.  Perhaps if a coalition of radio and television stations could agree on more, and accurate, coverage of elections, more people would know about the candidates and where they stand.  Other actions we should implement:

• Hold our primary in May instead of September.  Summer somnolence doesn’t end on Labor Day.  The day after Labor Day, when the primary was held, is a time when people try to recover from laid-back summer days and kick themselves into gear for the fall, get kids back into school, and get back into the work groove.  Moving primary election day to May puts it during a normal part of the work and school year. It will also give candidates more time to get their messages out for the general election.

• Hold elections every other year.  Municipal elections have even worse turnout than state/federal elections.  And Boston would save a million dollars in odd- numbered years by just voting in even years.

• Change election day to election weekend.  There’s no reason why election day needs to be on a workday.  Most people have more flexible time on weekends to do things like vote.

• Give people a tax credit of $100 for voting.

I’m sure there are many other potential solutions, but we really need to turn this around.  Democracy is at stake.  We need to demonstrate that we care.

Bill Walczak lives in Dorchester and is the former CEO and co-founder of Codman Square Health Center. His column appears regularly in the Reporter.

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