The decision of citizens not to vote — whether because of apathy or disgust — is damaging our nation. Participation is necessary to have a government that truly represents the will of the people.
That’s why a project taking place in Doña Ana County over the past two years is truly exciting. There, County Clerk Scott Krahling is attempting to improve voter turnout by engaging young people so that they grow up in a culture of voting. And that’s just one of his initiatives. The idea is to increase participation. Then, whoever wins, at least there will be the comfort of knowing that the people’s choice is serving. That’s different than simply electing the choice of those who show up, especially in local elections, where turnout can hover well below 50 percent compared to 60 percent for a presidential election cycle and 40 percent during a mid-term national election.
According to reporting from Heath Haussamen for NMpolitics.net, Krahling started with a nonpartisan advisory council (which added its own youth council) and gave it the task of developing ways to encourage voting, especially among young people. One tangible result will be seen this fall: New Mexico State University will have an early voting site for the first time for the November election.
Important to the success of the project is that Krahling and his office are listening to people, trying to find out — from them — why they choose not to vote. The initiative is building partnerships, too, with schools and other community groups to gather volunteers and support.
Rather than wait for young people to register, there’s an effort to go to where young people are and sign them up to vote. Groups such as the League of Women Voters already conduct such outreach in many places, including Santa Fe; Krahling’s effort is simply more intense.
This is a shift from the clerk’s traditional job of simply running elections. Not only is it time for such an effort, we need similar outreach in counties across New Mexico and from Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver. She already is championing structural reforms to improve voting access. Those include opposing unnecessary voter ID regulations and championing the use of voter convenience sites. On Tuesday, she participated in a Senate Indian Affairs and Rules Committee discussion on increasing voter access on Indian reservations — U.S. Sen. Tom Udall is the vice chairman of the committee.
Change is happening, if slowly. Already, New Mexico has passed a law to consolidate local elections, depending on the decisions of local officials. Santa Fe, we are pleased to see, should be moving its municipal election from March. Under the new system, nonpartisan elections could take place in November during odd years and partisan elections, also in November, during even years.
Other changes to make voting easier? Either sign up voters automatically or better yet, allow same-day registration. That way, people can’t be denied the right to vote because they forgot an artificial deadline. There’s more that can be done, too. In Colorado, voters can choose between in-person and vote-by-mail system. Many advocate moving election day to weekends rather than voting on a Tuesday.
But we need to find out more obstacles to voting — from the voters themselves. For that reason, other clerks should replicate the listening sessions taking place in Doña Ana County.
For rural voters, the difficulty might be having a ride to the polls. Others might not have the time to wait in line. Some voters dislike the candidates or want greater choice on the ballot.
Whatever the excuses, voting is not just a right, it’s a responsibility. By encouraging young people to take that responsibility more seriously, forward-looking county clerks such as Krahling will improve the political climate of New Mexico.
Adding structural reforms to make voting less confusing and more convenient will broaden participation. The combination will be unbeatable.