COMMENTARY: Earlier this month, our democracy experienced a new low when only 8.5 percent of registered Albuquerque voters participated in a regular election.
Though my office did not run this election directly, as a professional in this field I am both saddened and frustrated. Having worked through many challenges over the years to spur participation and educate voters, it is disappointing that fewer and fewer people are taking advantage of our constitutional right to vote that so many have fought and died to preserve.
But I am also inspired and energized to work on solutions and continue to help make reforms to our electoral system that attract and engage more voters.
There are many potential reasons given for low turnout this month: the lack of multiple, competitive races; the impact of Albuquerque’s photo voter ID requirement; lack of information; the fact that it is held separately from other elections; or even that a well-intentioned public finance system doesn’t go far enough to enable candidates to communicate with a wider audience of voters rather than the most reliable.
All of these taken collectively have an impact on voter interest and turnout. Indeed, there is a wealth of scientific research to demonstrate that outreach and education, voter ID laws and campaigns themselves have both an individual, as well as collective, impact.
Yet no matter the reason, this continues an alarming trend whereby fewer and fewer citizens are taking part in choosing our elected leaders.
In order to reverse this self-fulfilling cycle, where those who feel alienated from the system grow in number and drop out of the process, we must take immediate action to increase participation.
I believe it is incumbent upon public officials to take direct action towards engaging the public around elections. We must do more to ensure that barriers to voting are removed, that voters are educated about upcoming opportunities to cast their ballot, and that – most importantly – we are working to ensure the public trust in our system of government.
Government should share in the responsibility of ensuring that voters are aware of elections. Small investments in community outreach can go a long way toward public engagement in voting – something that serves to strengthen our democracy.
Providing voters timely and accurate information regarding when and how to cast their ballot, as well as what is on their ballot, is essential to engendering greater voter participation.
Voters also supported an amendment in 2014 to combine nonpartisan elections under one date, but that effort fell short of required support to change the N.M. Constitution. We should continue to push this effort forward as both a measure to support engagement and save money instead of running multiple, small elections throughout the year.
I also believe we must seriously consider innovations such as universal voter registration – recently signed into law in California after enactment in Oregon – and same-day registration, currently available in some form in 11 states.
While continued reforms are critically important to ensuring a positive voting experience, we must also address voters’ increasing belief in the ineffectiveness of the government they have elected. All too often public officials are in the spotlight for the wrong reasons, and we must do more to combat both the perception and reality that there are too few ways to hold elected officials accountable and shine the bright light of transparency on government.
We have much work to do as a state to reverse these trends and further engage the public in voting, streamlining the elections process and raising the level of confidence in government. Let’s get started. The health of our democracy depends on it.