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I pressed the phone against my ear and let my mind wander as I waited to talk to another

voter. I’d been phone-banking for hours, and the end of my shift was fast approaching. Before
long, the phone clicked, indicating someone was on the line, and I sprang into action. “Hello! My
name is Barry Plunkett!” I began cheerily. “I’m a high school intern with Courtney Watson’s
Campaign for Howard County Exe-”, but before I could finish my sentence, the man on the other
end of the call cut me off. “I’m going to stop you right there,” he said. “I’m not voting. I never
have, and I never will.” I couldn’t help but ask him why. My question prompted a seemingly
endless tirade against democracy. As he droned on and on about the disenfranchisement of the
American electorate and the immense political clout wielded by the ultra-wealthy, I sighed
deeply, not because I thought he was ignorant, but because I knew he wasn’t. The man was a
member of a growing sect of the population that –for one reason or another– chooses not to
participate regularly in the democratic process. Because voting in the United States isn’t
compulsory, we are doomed to suffer a lower turnout rate than our democratic counterparts in
Latin America and Europe. But the 36.4% turnout rate of the recent 2014 election wasn’t just
somewhat lower than the European ideal. It was appalling (DelReal). Apathy pervades American
political culture, but the situation is not hopeless. Crowd-sourced get-out-the-vote (GOTV)
efforts, especially those aimed at youth voters1, coupled with campaign finance reform designed
to empower ordinary voters will increase turnout.
Before preceding to the cure for the nonvoting epidemic, I would like to establish the
importance of healthy voter turnout. A representative democracy is founded on the principle that
elected officials act in accordance with the concerns and beliefs of a majority of their
constituency. This behavior is ensured by elections. Officials must represent their constituents

1 The term “youth voters” refers to voters under 30.

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appropriately or risk losing the next election to a contender who can. But when a large portion of
population doesn’t participate in the democratic process, the system collapses. Elected officials
no longer represent their constituency; they represent active voters. Nonvoters are deprived of
their voice in the government. Their beliefs go ignored. Their needs go unanswered. And a
government designed to answer to its citizens operates independently of them.
To address the nonvoting epidemic, we must also become acquainted with the growing
demographic that chooses to abstain from the democratic process. Nonvoters give many reasons
for not participating. Some say they don’t have time; others feel ignored by the government and
say their votes won’t make a difference; still others say they just don’t care (Kohut). Minorities,
particularly Hispanics, make up the majority of nonvoters. But while the demographic is
ethnically diverse, it is socioeconomically uniform. The PEW Research Center reports that
nonvoters are consistently poor and undereducated (Kohut). When voting habits are analyzed
across age groups, it becomes clear that “voting is a habit acquired with age” (Kohut). 40% of
youth voters do not participate. On the other end of the participation spectrum, whites, the
elderly, the rich, and the well-educated are grossly over represented at the polls and in the
government itself (Kohut).
As previously established, many voters avoid the polls because they feel disenfranchised
by the government. Initially, this statement seems paradoxical. By definition, the unimpeded
right to vote guarantees enfranchisement and a voice in the government; therefore, U.S. citizens
with access to the polls cannot be disenfranchised by any means. The reasoning of this syllogism
seems plausible, but it is actually unsound. The argument is built on the false premise that the
vote is inherently powerful. It is not. The power of the vote is derived from the political influence
it bestows on the voter. Recently, this power has been diluted and usurped by the political

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influence of “big money” (Lessig). Voters are shrinking away from the polls because they are
aware that votes cast today aren’t as powerful as they once were. To increase voter turnout, we
should “heed their…message about the…distribution of power in America” by enacting
campaign finance reform (Petracca 2).
Congress was designed to “answer only to the people,” but the current campaign finance
system undermines this dependency (Lessig). Candidates and elected officials must work to
please not only the voters but also the “funders” who support their multi-million and multibillion dollar campaigns. The “funder” demographic consists of the .05% of the population that
donates the maximum amount to a campaign. Within this highly influential group, there are just
132 people who contributed 60% of super PAC money in 2012. The candidates must attract these
ultra-wealthy funders’ donations to run a successful and competitive campaign. This creates a
dependency on the funders. The dependency on the funders reduces and displaces the
dependency on the voters. When elected officials are less dependent on voters, the vote loses its
power and influence, and the electorate is disenfranchised. Only campaign finance reform
mandating “small-dollar-funded elections” and “citizen-funded campaigns” can put an end to
funder influence and restore the power of the vote (Lessig). Once the power of the vote is
restored, voting will become more attractive and political participation will increase.
Campaign finance reform may be one of the most effective methods of increasing voter
turnout, but it is inherently difficult to achieve. The funders have a vested interest in maintaining
the status quo, and they use their influence to achieve this end. Meanwhile, the elected officials
who benefit from the current system are the only ones who could implement a reform. This
creates a conflict of interest. The officials aren’t likely to challenge a system they are highly

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dependent on for reelection. Thus, we must turn to GOTV efforts for more feasible albeit less
effective means of increasing turnout.
GOTV efforts refer to anything done to increase voter turnout. They can be executed by
an individual, political campaign, partisan or nonpartisan organization, or the government itself.
Traditional GOTV efforts include door knocking, phone banking, and distributing campaign
mailers, but these methods can be very costly and have met with limited success in the field
(Issenberg 3). But GOTV efforts are inherently unproductive. In fact, recent research suggests
that the internet, mobile applications, and social media may provide promising, new avenues for
GOTV efforts to reach voters, particularly young voters who make up the largest portion of the
nonvoting demographic.
Social networking sites in particular have potential as a medium for GOTV efforts.
Americans spend an average of 3.6 hours per day engaged with social media. For Americans
under 35 that number rises to 4.2 hours. Such heavy usage enables unparalleled access to both
voting and nonvoting demographics through social networking sites (Ipsos Open Thinking
Exchange). Political campaigns first tried to contact users in the 2008 election cycle with
advertisements that made “personalized” appeals to voters based on information collected by the
sites. Just four years later, campaigns were already pumping millions of dollars into social media
advertising and were implementing specialized, geo-targeted ads on the sites to mobilize voters
in especially competitive districts. The advertisements reached larger audiences than television
ads at a fraction of the cost (Schultheis 1). But in spite of their efficiency, they failed to mobilize
the nonvoting demographic. Their failure is not tantamount to the failure of social media based
GOTV efforts. It was caused by the misidentification of the power of social networking sites
(Teresi and Michelson 2).

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The campaigns wrongfully assumed that advertisements on social networking sites would
be more successful than those on television simply because they would reach a greater number of
voters. They put quantity before quality. But users took no notice. They scrolled right past even
the flashiest of ads. Analysts were left scratching their heads until a study performed by
researchers at Menlo College in 2014 finally revealed how to generate political participation
through social media. Instead of assaulting voters with advertisements, researchers exposed users
to political status updates from Facebook friends (Teresi and Michelson 2). 31% of users
exposed to political status updates voted, compared to 22.7% of users not exposed to the statuses.
The immense 8.2 percentage point difference increases to 10.7 when restricting analysis to youth
voters (Teresi and Michelson 5). The researchers’ success was unprecedented. Their “crowdsourced” GOTV campaign outshined all traditional GOTV methods, the most effective of which
increase turnout by no more than 5% (Issenberg 2). And best of all, their success came without a
The researchers’ findings suggest that social networking sites may in fact answer “the
youth conundrum” after all (Adler). Clearly, political status updates can encourage participation
at a high rate among otherwise apathetic, young voters. But the research’s implications reach far
beyond Facebook and Twitter. The research revealed that the secret to truly successful voter
mobilization is crowd-sourcing. The political organizations, campaigns, and parties currently
working to mobilize voters will never succeed, no matter how many billions of dollars they
spend because their efforts only further alienate inactive voters. Nonvoters looking to get off of
the sidelines can’t approach the ballot box without being bombarded by mailers, pamphlets, text
messages, and emails. Their homes are invaded by an endless stream of phone calls and activists
asking for a few minutes of their time. They are beaten into submission by advertisements

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everywhere they turn. And ultimately, they return to the sidelines without ever casting a single
ballot. Truly successful GOTV efforts must not be funded by super PACs and political parties.
They must be crowd-sourced. They must come from the voters themselves. The money currently
being spent on GOTV efforts would be much better spent informing activists and regular voters
that they must not only vote but also advertise the importance of voting to their less active
friends, families, and colleagues. The successful crowd-sourcing of GOTV efforts will generate
unmatched levels of political participation and increase voter turnout tremendously.
In the late 18th century, a small, volunteer militia composed of several thousand farmers
took up arms against the most powerful military on the planet. They were hopelessly
outnumbered and outgunned. But they could not be deterred. Faced with insurmountable odds
and armed only with the strength of their convictions, they marched to certain death. Hundreds
of thousands sacrificed their lives in the name of democracy. But today, we disgrace the memory
of their sacrifice. We squander the democracy they fought for. They gave their lives to secure the
right to vote. We don’t even exercise it. Democracy in the United States is dying. It can be saved,
but we’re looking in all the wrong places. The cure isn’t buried somewhere in campaign
advertisements and voter registration drives. Democracy can only be saved through the crowdsourcing of GOTV efforts and campaign finance reform. Together, they will cultivate an
empowered and highly active political culture. Activism will be the norm, not apathy. Voting
will no longer be disparaged as a burdensome chore. It will be celebrated as a privilege. And the
United States will reemerge as a great bastion of modern representative democracy.

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Works Cited
Adler, Ben. “Answer to Youth Conundrum in Your Pocket.” Politico. 18 Sept 2007. Web. 26 Oct.
DelReal, A. Hose. “Voter Turnout in 2014 was the lowest since 2014.” The Washington Post. 10
Nov. 2014. Web. 7 Jan. 2015.
Issenberg, Sasha. “Nudge the Vote.” New York Times. 10 Nov. 2010. Print.
Kohut, Andrew. “Regular Voters, Intermittent Voters, and Those Who Don’t: WHO VOTES,
WHO DOESN’T, AND WHY.” Pew Research Center for the People and & the Press. The
Pew Charitable Trusts, 18 Oct. 2006. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.
Lessig, Laurence. “We the People, and the Republic we must reclaim.” TED. 3 April 2013.
Petracca, Mark. “Elections Offer Only an Illusion of Participation.” The New York Times. 17
March 1988. Print.
Schultheis, Emily. “Political Advertisements Go Mobile for 2012 Elections.” Politico. 28 Nov.
2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.
“Socialogue: The Most Common Butterfly On Earth Is The Social Butterfly.” Ipsos Open
Thinking Exchange. 08 Jan. 2014. Web. 2 Jan. 2015.
Teresi, H., & Michelson, M. R. “Wired to Mobilize: The effect of social networking messages on
voter turnout.” The Social Science Journal (2014). Print.