In what people are calling — accurately, in my opinion — the most important American midterm election in our lifetimes, there's been a lot of things we've never seen before: like, for example. a president sending thousands of troops to the U.S. southern border or erasing the existence of more than a million transgender people, all to boost GOP voter turnout a point or two.
And then there's this: non-voter porn.
If you read the news, you know the kind of political smut I'm talking about. Full-frontal exposures of mostly attractive 20-somethings, revealing their often lame-sounding excuses why they're joining the more than 60 percent of eligible Americans who typically don't vote in midterm elections.
We're talking about 20-somethings who've never used the U.S. mail and are traumatized by the idea of finding a postage stamp for a registration form, or so don't see how a small president in search of a balcony is any different than any other politician.
Non-voter porn is meant to titillate, shock, and outrage readers who think Tuesday's election is the last best chance to save Democracy As We Know It from going down the toilet it's been circling the last two years. The ur-document of this genre is a New York Magazine profile of a dozen mostly intelligent young adults who are engaged in many things — but not voting.
The piece went viral. Many readers got madder and madder as they read about Anna, the 21-year-old from Austin, Texas, living in New York, who can't handle her registration problems by mail ("Honestly, if someone had the forms printed for me and was willing to deal with the post office, I'd be much more inclined to vote"), or 25-year-old Aaron from Atlanta, who volunteered for Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016 but who's now mad at Democrats for not seeming to care about climate change or much else ("And I just don't see the point anymore"), or Laura, the 21-year-old from Atlanta who didn't know in high school there was a vice president named Joe Biden but who promises she will educate herself enough to vote someday — hopefully by 2020.
The NYMag article failed to mention (as stressed in this hip-hop-style diss track from Mother Jones) that under-30 voter turnout in 2018 is likely to be higher than any midterm election in modern history. Yet it nonetheless inspired derision and the predictable biting satire from the Washington Post's Alexandra Petri. But you know what? If your inclination is to blame the avocado-toast-loving Generation That Killed Napkins and Mayonnaise for the collapse of the American Experiment …
Look, we all can take some personal responsibility in our lives, and so I have nothing but praise for the millions of millennials who successfully Googled "how to buy stamps" and have registered to vote in Tuesday's election. And if you're like me and you know there's some difference between the two parties ("Yo, Aaron from Atlanta … a Republican president is gutting all the climate change rules put in by [checks notes] a Democrat …"), indifference can be annoying. But as someone who's (ineptly) parented two of today's 20-somethings, I know that yelling at them … is not a strategy.
Let's be honest: America — the supposed beacon of democracy — is one of the world's worst developed nations for voting. Millennials had nothing to do with that. Even worse, my generation of baby boomers has essentially been running the United States for the last quarter-century, and we've done nothing to fix that. We've generally made voting worse. We're the ones who need to be shamed.
Are we really going to blame voters who grew up in the 21st century for a system that uses 19th-century technology to implement ideas from the 18th century? America has a slew of companies that thrive by making it so easy — addictive, actually — to use their services. Can you imagine Uber or Spotify asking for your business … a full month ahead of time, assuming you can print out a cumbersome form and locate a post office? That would be insane, and yet a hodgepodge of governments — that all manage to register voters in different, complicated ways — do exactly that.
America's voting problem can arguably divided into three broad categories: the systemic problems that should have been fixed 50 years ago but weren't because the politicians who can make the changes are beholden to the lousy system we now have, plus what you might call the social problems of an outdated system that looks nothing like "the way we live today," plus the hurdles that are purely put there by hardball politics. It all adds up to a broken process.
The Pew Research Center found after the 2016 election that the United States ranked 26th of 32 nations on a list of developed, democratic nations when it came to voter participation. A big part of that is few other countries put almost all of the onus for voting on the citizen, to register and then get out to the polls. Most Americans — myself included — wouldn't support the system of mandatory voting that exists in some countries, where you can even be fined for not voting. But other systemic reforms could result in a huge boost in turnout:
— Same-day registration, in which unregistered voters energized by the final days of hard-fought campaigns can show up on Election Day with some form of ID, register, and go directly into the voting booth. This alone would solve many of the biggest problems for voters in the 18-to-30 bracket, who — unlike older voters — tend to move around frequently or change their name through marriage. "We know this works quite well. … Some states have been doing this since 1979," said Barry Burden, the University of Wisconsin political scientist who runs its Elections Research Center.
— Automatic registration, in which citizens interact with the government — getting a driver's license, for example — and are automatically registered to vote as well. This is done in many European nations and 13 states (plus D.C.). You can actually opt out if you're determined to make a statement by not registering (that's what 8 percent do in Oregon, Burden said), but typically this does boost overall participation by several percentage points.
— Early voting mechanisms, including early voting stations — which exist and work well in a number of U.S. states, even if here in Pennsylvania it's still viewed as something from Mars — and even mail-in ballots, which are successfully used in a few states like Oregon. These go beyond long-standing — and unfulfilled — proposals to make Election Day a national holiday.
Other voting advocates are focused on how to make various aspects of democracy — from the design of voting booths and polling places to registration using mobile apps to simply giving young people better information about who and what is on the ballot — more modern.
"We're all about how to make elections more open, inviting and easy to participate in," said Whitney Quesenbery of the Center for Civic Design, which works on projects such as testing an "Anywhere Ballot," where people can vote on their own device (she admits such solutions probably require "a better internet than the one we have now") or expanding use of voter guides — to address the common excuse for not voting of lack of information.
But in the end, one of the big reasons people don't vote for politicians is … politicians, and I mean that in two different ways. One is that political parties need to do a better job of putting up more competitive candidates in more races. "The number one reason" for not voting, Burden told me, "is not knowing who the candidates are, or not liking them … or actively disliking them."
The deeper reason — and it's something that the civic-minded folks who get involved in voting reform aren't comfortable talking about — is that too many politicians are too invested in discouraging people from voting instead of encouraging them. Some of the blame belongs to craven incumbents in both parties. (The supposed "liberal oasis" of New York state is one of the worst for voters, including a requirement that voters seeking to switch parties to vote in a primary do so six months in advance).
But for today's Republican Party — which does best with older folks who've lived in one place for a while and thus face the least voting hurdles — making it hard to cast a ballot is a feature, not a bug. Most of the worst voter-repression schemes — overly strenuous voter ID laws to fight nonexistent fraud, purging voter rolls, closing polling places, curtailing early voting — have been enacted by GOP legislatures, governors, or secretaries of state.
Some of these schemes — closing polling places on or near college campuses, or ruling that college IDs are invalid for voting — specifically target the young voters that we're now yelling at for not leaping these tall man-made hurdles and voting. That said, I do blame the Democrats for one thing: not making a bigger fuss about this. In the last month, I've seen dozens of TV ads on how the Democrats are going to protect health care but not one single ad that Democrats will make it easier for you to vote. That seems like a stunning lack of imagination.
So yell at them, and then yell 100 times louder at the Republican apparatchiks like Georgia's Brian Kemp or Kansas' Kris Kobach who've tried to build their careers by standing in front of the polling place door. But don't yell at millennials, who are tomorrow's enthusiastic voters. Unless we grown-ups keep screwing things up.