Lexi Neibart - MPA Candidate at NYU Wagner
On the morning of September 10th 2013 (NYC Primary Election Day), I poured my coffee and took out the NYC Voter Guide to review who I would vote for that evening. Throughout the day I asked my friends who they were voting for and many asked, “there is an election today?” After a few conversations like that, I came to realize that if my peers didn’t know there was an election, how could they be expected to know who was running? How could they even care to vote? I suspected that my social group wasn’t the only segment of young New Yorkers who hadn’t considered voting that day. I was proven right after I walked into my polling place at 5:30pm to find out that I was not only the 100th voter that day, but I was also the youngest person to show up.
My experience last month is not an unusual one. According to the NYC Campaign Finance Board (NYCCFB), only 29% of the 4.1 million registered voters cast ballots in the 2009 general election for Mayor. More surprisingly, that number drops to 4% of eligible votes under the age of 30. Let me underscore that: 4 out of 100 eligible voters under the age of 30 voted for the Mayor of New York City. CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) has suggested that over 50% of voters (under 30) self-reported that they did not vote in the 2010 midterm elections because they were “too busy/conflicting work” and/or “not interested/felt my vote would not count.” Those both sound like excuses to me. So how do we get people to care?
This is a question that I have been struggling to answer. I am a student in Professor Beth Noveck’s Government 3.0 class at NYU Wagner and we have been given the assignment to identify a problem and address possible solutions through the use of technology. A few days after the assignment was given, I found myself browsing the online dating site, OKCupid, when I thought I had come up with the greatest idea of all time. Why not repurpose an already successful application among 18-30 year olds for voter engagement? According to statisticbrain.com, of the 54 million people in the United States, 40 million have tried online dating. So why not use this proven method to match voters with the candidate that he/she is most likely to support? This could serve as the platform for engaging people on the issues that matter to them in a format that they have already accepted. I thought I had my entire project laid out in front of me. That lasted for about a week.
Over the last few weeks, our class has been exploring citizen engagement and how to encourage participation. I remember sitting in one particular class where we were discussing the different incentive structures for motivating people to do something. At that moment, I realized I had been approaching this project from the wrong end. For a tool to be successful, it needs an audience. And consequentially, that audience needs a reason to use the application. For OKCupid, the motivation is the potential to find a partner. For Fourquare, it’s becoming the Mayor of your favorite bar. For Challenge.gov, it’s the potential for a cash prize and recognition among your peers. So, what would the motivation be for a 25 year old to educate themselves on local elections, and thus, vote?
I had an interesting meeting a few weeks ago with David Moore of the Participatory Politics Foundation to discuss this very issue. He pointed me in the direction of a number of organizations that are trying to address voter engagement at the Federal and State level. The most compelling sites that I came across were, TurboVote (a great tool for getting people to the polls), Rock the Vote (the first organization to enlist the “coolness factor” for voting) and the League of Women Voters of NYC (the best of breed with its vote411.org site, but stale and academic). Each of these sites is doing their part to get voters to the polls, but all lack the incentive for young people to follow through. Rock the Vote comes close, but it only operates at the Federal level. To me, the local level is where young people should care the most because our daily lives are directly affected by the decisions made by local officials. Sounds compelling, right? So why is it so hard to translate that into action?
That is the question I am struggling to answer. I’d like to say that I’m not back at the beginning, but rather, changing course. The development of a tool to educate, engage and motive young people to vote in local elections is probably a worthwhile endeavor. However, unless there is a sufficient incentive for participation, it will just be another black hole on the Internet. So let me leave you with my final plea. What would motivate young people to vote? Actually, the more pertinent question is, what motivates young people not to vote and how do we come up with a more compelling incentive to get them to the polls?