“I don’t think voting is the end, but rather the beginning, of political participation. Voting is a ‘gateway drug’ to political engagement. Now, more than ever, is a time to engage, not just with voting, but by contacting representatives, joining political organizations, contributing, volunteering, demonstrating and maybe even running for office.”
These words from Sean McElwee, a policy analyst at Demos, a New York City-based think tank and public policy organization, were among those heard at Wednesday, March 29’s “Voting Rights in the Age of Trump” lecture. His call to action may have fallen on deaf ears, however, or rather, no ears at all—Rocky 200 was sparsely populated that evening, as a handful of students trickled in around the 7 p.m. start time.
This lack of student involvement is acutely felt by Executive Director of Democracy Matters Joan Mandle, who presided over the event. A Vassar grad herself from the Class of ’66, Mandle cut her teeth as an activist during her time on campus, where she advocated for Vassar to go co-ed. (It eventually did so, as many of us know, in 1969.) She vividly remembers having to make the case in a meeting with Vassar’s conservative Board, composed entirely of white men, that women could be held to the same intellectual standards as men in a co-educational environment.
Mandle pointed out that the Hudson Valley’s 10 principle grassroots groups are not heavily student-based, but that a national student movement called the Indivisibles is a notable example of student activism in today’s political climate. This grassroots student organization follows a guide written by former congressional staffers, which educates its campus satellites on best practices for engaging and lobbying Congress to protect human rights, as a toolkit for “resisting the Trump agenda” (The Indivisible Guide).
After a short introduction by Mandle, McElwee gave a data-driven presentation titled “The Policy Consequences of Voting Registration Inequities in NY” based on his own work at Demos, which revealed the strong relationship between low turnout and unequal turnout. He pointed to a 2010 study by Vincent Mahler, which concluded that for every one percent increase in turnout levels, there was a corresponding decrease of about three-quarters of a Gini point in overall inequality (Mahler, “Government Inequality Reduction in Comparative Perspective: A Cross-National Study of the Developed World,” 2010). This means that across developed nations, including the United States, higher levels of turnout are related to lower levels of inequality in that country.
McElwee went on to explain that “core” voters in the United States, who are more likely to vote not just in presidential elections but in local and midterm elections, are more often than not both white and Republican. According to his research, core voters are also more likely to favor such policies as cutting taxes to reduce the federal deficit, whereas the general American population favors measures such as decreasing spending on defense instead.
Furthermore, multimillionaires are disproportionately represented among campaign donors (they make up three percent of the American population and yet 50 percent of “elite donors,” who give $10,000 plus to a single campaign). And according to McElwee’s research, policy outcomes are particularly responsive to the preferences of the rich.
The effects of big money on politics is also a major discussion point for Democracy Matters. According to President of Vassar’s Democracy Matters chapter Samuel Beckenhauer, “85 percent of people want some reform in money of politics, yet until relatively recently [even] the Democratic Party has largely been lukewarm on the issue.” Beckenhauer pointed to Black Lives Matter as a movement which has worked successfully outside of the two-party system. He argued further that until either party starts to take these movements seriously, they would be better off being organized outside the two-party system.
McElwee asserted that under the Trump Administration, federal voting rights laws should not be expected to become more inclusive. Voting at the federal level is regulated by the National Voter Registration Act, for which compliance is especially low, for example, in states with high African American populations. Part of what Demos does is to sue delinquent states in order to achieve compliance. “There’s never going to be a silver bullet [to ensure inclusive voting rights],” McElwee conceded toward the end of his presentation, “A lot of the action will have to start at the state level.”
To this point, McElwee concluded by highlighting the proposed New York Votes Act, also known as New York State Assembly Bill 5312. If passed, Assembly Bill 5312 would introduce automatic voter registration through an opt-out system, early voting and same-day registration in New York State. In addition, the Act would provide no-excuse absentee voting, as well as voting rights for people on parole. Bill 5312 would follow the example of similar efforts in other states, such as Oregon’s Automatic Voter Registration Experiment: 300,000 new Oregonians had registered to vote over the course of a year following the implementation of an “opt-out” registration system, which was implemented in January 2016 and administered at individual Department of Motor Vehicle locations. Furthermore, 44 percent of these newly registered individuals voted in the next statewide election.
According to Beckenhauer, Democracy Matters chapters across New York will be lobbying their state legislators in the coming months to pass the New York Votes Act. “This would have dramatic effects for New York State politics, to say the absolute least,” he emphasized. “Grassroots organizing can have huge impact at the state, county and municipal level, not to mention there are many other institutions that can be pressured to reform.”
And it looks like Beckenhauer is only one among a cohort of Vassar students who support more inclusive voting rights. One of the students present was Kelly Pushie ’20, who said, “[It is] incredibly important to make voting readily available to everyone and make it easy for people to register to vote who otherwise would not do so. The wider the array of people who vote, the better the beliefs of the people will be represented.”
For students looking to get involved, Mandle has a bit of advice: nothing is as effective as a face-to-face meeting with your local representative.
To that end, Democracy Matters student representatives from across the state will be traveling to Albany along with members of the Roosevelt Institute for a Lobbying Day this April 25. Students with further questions on how they can get involved are encouraged to reach out to Democracy Matters.