“Are you registered to vote?” “Are you registered to vote?”
This week, we spent hours asking hundreds of passersby in Philadelphia on the final day they were eligible to register to vote in Pennsylvania for the 2016 presidential election. We were there with /www.rockthevote.com/"}}">Rock The Vote to help register students at the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and the Community College of Philadelphia as part of a broader cross-brand effort with some of the biggest names in women’s media to encourage women to vote and make their voices heard. Young adults make up a significant chunk of the eligible voting population, but many of them just don’t get to the polls. In 2008, for example, roughly 20 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds said they didn’t vote because they simply missed the registration deadline.
As journalists who sometimes cover politics, we spend a lot of time ― especially this election cycle ― writing about political engagement on the macro level, but we often do so from behind our laptops. We’ve been encouraging women all over the country to register to vote online, but just one day on the ground talking to potential voters gave us far greater insight into the small roadblocks that can add up to decreased engagement with our nation’s political process. Here’s what we learned:
Even the simplest forms can be confusing. Registering to vote should be super easy. That was our whole sales pitch. It’s just one form! It will take two minutes! But even that one form left questions. Sure, you know your city and state ― but do you know your municipality off the top of your head? What about your county? If you access the form online without someone to speak to, you might find yourself wondering if you can re-register if you’ve been registered in another state. None of these things are impossible to figure out, of course, but registering to vote, like many things in this country, is definitely easiest for those who have the time to do the research and the luxury of having people around them who have been through the process themselves. Couldn’t we make this even simpler?
Voter ID laws hurt people. It’s one thing to hear about how voter ID laws can disenfranchise voters; it’s another to see it play out in real time. We spoke to several people who weren’t sure if they could register to vote at all because they didn’t have an ID. (In Pennsylvania, you can actually use the last four digits of your social security number if you don’t have an ID, but if you don’t have someone there explaining that to you directly, it’s easy to see how you’d assume you’re just out of luck.) These laws vary state-to-state, and they disproportionately hurt black and Latino voters, low-income voters and women. Also, many students who live out of state don’t necessarily get a new license, so they’re not sure what that means for them in terms of where they vote, if they have to travel home or vote absentee, etc.
It’s so easy to let voter registration slip through the cracks. When you’re running to class, or work, or shuttling your kid around, or meeting friends or doing any of those mundane things that make up daily life, it becomes tough to put even 10 minutes aside to fill out forms. And when voter registration deadlines are poorly publicized, it’s easy to miss your window altogether. “I’ll do it later,” one young woman told us as she rushed off to class, before realizing that in just under three hours, she’d be too late. Once she was informed of the evening deadline, she put her stuff down and filled out the form.
The young people we encountered were overwhelming engaged with the political process, not apathetic about it. Of course we ran into a few people who were adamant that they’d rather sit out this election than cast a ballot, but most of the Philadelphians we spoke to ― the majority of whom were students ― were enthusiastic about voting. “Of course I am!” was a refrain we heard more than once from students when we asked if they were registered. “Well, I can’t let that a**hole win,” said another. (Inelegant language, perhaps, but the point stands.) For all the talk of millennials being too lazy or self-centered to tune into politics, we saw evidence on the ground that young people are a force to be reckoned with ... if they are given the chance.