How To Save American Democracy For — And With — Our Kids
The people have the power in a democracy, but we have to use it, and we have to teach our kids to use it, too.
By Erin Geiger Smith
In the frenzied final months of the 2020 presidential election, I was a panelist on a BBC radio show. In her melodic, serious-yet-serene British accent, the host wrapped up the interview with a double-shot of questions that haunts me to this day: Was the integrity of our election system being pulled apart by partisan politics? How democratic did I think the November election would be?
My stomach dropped as I realized that she was asking me if American democracy would reach its expiration date before my son even reached the end of first grade.
I responded that there might be a perception, thanks to partisan rhetoric, that the election could be unfair, but that that perception wasn’t reality. Our systems would hold. At that point, I thought the country needed to get through 2020, and then we could work to repair the damage.
I was right that the election process worked exactly as it should have. And as it turned out, there was much to celebrate from a participation perspective; more Americans voted than in any presidential election in history. But here’s where I was very wrong: the attacks on our election system didn’t end, even after a joint report by election officials and cybersecurity experts pronounced the 2020 election “the most secure in American history.” Instead, we saw a president refusing to accept his loss and an insurrection at the United States Capitol by those trying to disrupt the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s win.
Some of us were lucky (or sheltered) enough to grow up believing our democracy was stable, maybe even guaranteed. Others faced discrimination that made it obvious equality has never been a reality.
The old adage “democracy takes work” might have once sounded like a platitude, but right now it’s like the desperate cry of an infant needing that 3 a.m. feed. We have to respond.
What Holds Us Back
1. Voting restrictions
Restrictive voting laws and a lot of plain not-showing-up hold us back from our full potential as a representative democracy.
Until the 1965 Voting Rights Act, many Black Americans, Native Americans, and ethnic minority groups were prevented from voting by various customs and laws like poll taxes, literacy tests, and old-fashioned voter intimidation. Despite Supreme Court decisions that have lessened its power, the Voting Rights Act is still used to fight suppressive tactics like over-aggressive voter ID laws or racially-motivated closures of polling places.
Grandparents and great-grandparents alive right now lived in a time when many Americans were prevented from voting, and we’re all living in a time when judges strike down new laws found to be racially motivated. (A very recent example: North Carolina last month.)
By late February, Republicans in 43 states had proposed at least 250 election laws that would make it harder to vote by putting limits on options like mail-in voting and 24-hour voting. As of October, 19 states had successfully passed restrictive laws.
Some of the new laws go beyond voting restrictions to change who has the power to oversee and finalize vote counts, moves voting experts warn increase the chance of partisan interference in election certification. Perhaps most disturbing (it’s a tough call!), a Reuters report found that of the 15 Republican candidates running for Secretary of State in five battleground states — Secretaries of State usually oversee elections — 10 questioned whether Donald Trump lost the election as of September.
2. Low voter turnout
Overall turnout in the 2020 presidential election was 67%, up about five percentage points from 2016.
Citizens 18-34 achieved a jump from 49% in 2016 to 57% in 2020, Hispanic Americans from 48% to 54%, and Asian Americans a huge 49% to 59%.
But even with recent progress, voter turnout in the United States is simply too low. Two-thirds of Americans are sitting out presidential elections, and so are nearly half of our youngest voters.
The numbers across all groups are far worse in midterm elections — record-busting turnout in 2018 meant just 53% overall and 36% for voters aged 18-29. State and local elections often see numbers even lower.
3. We could make it easier to vote — but we don’t
Certain voting options and tools can improve turnout and are nearly universally supported by voting rights experts, but they have not been adopted by all states. They include:
- Automatic voter registration.
- Same-day voter registration.
- Expansive early voting periods and poll hours.
- Accessible vote-by-mail options.
It’s important to recognize that these tools are already used, in a mix-and-match way, successfully and without abuse in both red and blue states.
Oregon began using automatic voter registration (which means citizens are registered automatically when they interact with a state agency like the DMV) in 2016, and about 20 states and Washington, D.C., have adopted it since.
Minnesota, always a star in voter turnout, has used same-day registration since the 1970s. One of my favorite voting stats is that in the 2004 presidential election, 20% of Minnesota voters registered the same day they voted.
California recently made permanent that registered voters will be sent a by-mail ballot.
New York used ranked-choice voting in its mayoral primaries this year, giving voters a chance to express preferences, rather than having to select only one candidate.
Kentucky bucked the red-state restriction trend by enacting new pro-democracy measures such as allowing voters to “cure” mistakes made on by-mail ballots, like forgetting a signature.
What We Can Do
I’m the first to admit the attacks on our democracy can leave a person — especially a parent — feeling helpless. Burying one’s head in the sand may sound ideal, but we need to accept that these threats to democracy are real. The cure to anxiety is action. A first step is to think of voting rights and election administration not as partisan issues, but as straightforward, democratic (small d) ones. Remember, the people have the power in a democracy, but we have to use it, and we have to teach our kids to use it, too. Here's how:
1. Vote in all elections.
Treat state and local elections with as much importance as you do presidential elections. We know, courtesy of Covid, that governors, mayors, city council members, and school boards have vast and immediate effects on our lives.
Often when you vote for local officials, you’re helping choose the higher officials of the future. A city council member might run for the state legislature, legislators love the promotion to governor, and governors dream of Congress or that Oval Office.
(My most practical tip: sign up for a service like TurboVote that reminds you of upcoming elections, or go to your local elections board website and put the dates on your calendar, reminder included.)
Even if you consider yourself in the minority party, know that politicians, party officials, and those who fund races will pay more attention as the size of the minority party grows. Always vote, even if you think your candidate won’t win.
2. Hassle (yes) your reps.
Often those with the most extreme positions are the ones who contact their representatives the most. We need voices of reason to do some hassling, too.
Call or write your elected officials at every level and push them to support voting measures that increase access to the polls, and push back against any who spread misinformation. Let candidates know your support depends on their position and action on voting rights. Many organizations make it especially easy on you to send an email, and, even though some of us are allergic to phone calls, imagining the impact of actual phones in actual politicians’ offices ringing all day every day may provide encouragement. Voting rights advocates often provide scripts, and officials’ phone numbers are easily discoverable.
If you’re wondering the best time to do this? It’s almost always right now. For example, the U.S. Senate is currently considering bills to increase voter rights protection and restore certain aspects of the Voting Rights Act. The two bills are “the sword and the shield to protect and defend our voting rights,” says Virginia Kase Solomón, CEO of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters.
3. Help other people get registered.
Whether it’s by volunteering with a voter recruitment organization like When We All Vote, or working with your direct community — your workplace, your religious organization, your social group — help register anyone who isn’t. (Workplaces promoting voting in a non-partisan way can really make a difference.)
Find five people who aren’t registered and help them through the process, including registering and making a voting plan — where, when, and how — for when the next election rolls around.
4. Know how votes are counted — literally.
The danger of misinformation is a lasting lesson of 2020, and post-election disputes over results continue to be huge threats to democracy. Individuals can help combat this by learning details of the vote casting and counting process, says law professor and voting rights expert Joshua Douglas. Exact procedures differ state to state, but descriptions of how Texas and Georgia tabulate votes, and a first-person account from Michigan, are a jumping-off point. It will allow you “to combat misinformation from your friend or your crazy uncle on Facebook,” Douglas says.
4. Talk to your kids about democracy.
You are the best person to help your kids think about our democracy. Keep it age-appropriate by telling preschool and early elementary children that Americans choose their own leaders by voting, and as they get older, add the layers of how we vote, what different officials do, and how candidates are selected. Make it as local and relevant to them as possible.
“It’s about appealing to the issues they most care about and then using that to bring home the more broad, abstract principles of democracy — i.e., participation and activism,” says Claudia Yoli Ferla, the executive director of MOVE Texas, an organization mobilizing underserved youth communities.
Point out that mayors are like the principals of the city, and discuss how decisions by school board members might determine whether their school has music class, or if art is available. Connecting politicians with their actual actions is paramount to kids understanding the importance of voting in all elections.
Share some history to reinforce that voting wasn’t always available to everyone. Tell your child when someone of your gender, race, or immigration history would have first been able to vote.
5. Subscribe to your local newspaper (and have it delivered).
Having physical copies of the news puts local and national politics in front of your children daily, and is something they’re likely to feel proud about skimming as they become strong readers. (You may go to news websites; they likely do not!)
6. Bring them with you to vote.
When it’s time to vote, whether you do it by mail or in person, involve your child. Let them look over your shoulder while you register or confirm your registration, and explain they’ll one day need to do the same.
Before you vote, look up what’s on your ballot, and discuss how to research candidates by looking at their websites, reliable news sources, and informational sites like Vote411.org.
Finally, have them join you to vote, and if it’s in person, remember to bring entertainment in case of a wait. Douglas, a father of two, once entertained a group of kids at his polling place with his reading of One Vote, Two Votes, I Vote, You Vote.
7. Celebrate progress.
The community of people who work to protect democracy and the vote is both massive and diverse. It includes people like Laura Brill, a mom who made it her mission to pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds so they can vote as soon as they are 18; Amanda Litman, a former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer who co-founded Run for Something to encourage and guide young people running for office; Eric Reveno, a college coach determined to make sure student athletes vote; and Mandana Dayani, a Los Angeles power player who gathered marketing geniuses to help her cast voting as something everyone should clamor to do. Voting and civil rights organizations range from the all-encompassing to the narrowly targeted, like the 100-year-old League of Women Voters, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, whose many efforts include helping citizens learn to fight gerrymandering, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Native American Rights Fund.
All these initiatives are admittedly piecemeal efforts at civic education and mobilization — 100,000 new voter registrations here, 60 citizens pushing for fair maps there. But it’s worth remembering that the groundbreaking change in Georgia in 2020, largely credited to the work of Stacey Abrams and the team she built, came after a decade of registering voters, fighting for equal access to the polls, and rallying citizens to actually show up and vote, not just in the 2020 presidential election, but in the U.S. Senate runoffs two months later. The takeaway should be that any of us can participate in these types of initiatives with our time, our money, or both.
Whether or not you felt relief when Georgia turned from red to blue, it was a striking example of what organized voting work can do.
Remembering the influence active (stress on active!) citizens have in a democracy is empowering. Teaching our kids that truth has never been more important. As Yoli Fera put it, "Young people in our state and across our country hold immense power in their hands! They just need to realize it." The same goes for parents.
Let’s work together with our kids, so in 20 years one of them can tell the BBC how just and stable America’s democracy is.
Erin Geiger Smith is a journalist and the author of Thank You for Voting: The Maddening, Enlightening, Inspiring Truth About Voting in America, and the Thank You for Voting Young Readers' Edition. She has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. She previously worked at Reuters covering legal news. Erin graduated from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, The University of Texas School of Law, and the University of Texas at Austin. She grew up in Liberty, Texas and now lives in Manhattan with her husband and their son Reed.
Illustrations: subjug, Pakin Songmor, Angela Weiss, SOPA, Kena Betancur/Getty Images