Opinion

To encourage voting, have some hard talks – and really listen

To increase voter turnout and encourage young people to participate in elections, civic engagement groups are reaching out with conversations in schools and coffee shops.
To increase voter turnout and encourage young people to participate in elections, civic engagement groups are reaching out with conversations in schools and coffee shops. TNS

In 2016, nearly 6 million people, ages 18 to 29, were registered but did not vote in the national election. The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) calls this undermobilization. When young people were asked why they chose not to vote, the top reason was “they did not like the candidates or the issues.” The second was that they were “too busy on election day.”

CIRCLE reports that undermobilization was even worse during the 2014 midterm elections, when 12.5 million registered young voters did not show up at the polls.

In 2006, I was part of a team that convened difficult conversations between Muslims and Jews in their 20s and 30s. These were groups with a long history of enmity.

We set our sights on designing a program and a recruitment strategy. We targeted young professionals who were sick of the political leadership on both sides of the conflict and frustrated that the issues never seemed to get better or go away. At the time, the dominant methods of engagement were angry opinion articles and loud protests; each side was screaming at the other, and no one was hearing anyone.

forum influencer-hasan
Aziza Hasan

We went to where our targeted demographic spent their time – places of worship, concert venues and coffee shops. We spoke to any group that would give us time. We wanted to persuade people to do something out of the ordinary, something that felt awkward – even frightening. Our whole process was based on the willingness to wrestle with discomfort. How could we make them believe there was value in that?

We had to address their frustrations head-on. There was no substitute for one-on-one conversation. We asked them to embark on a 10-month program that would bring them together as Muslims and Jews. We heard whispered comments: “Why would I ever want to do that?”

It was addressing exactly that question that was most helpful in expanding recruitment and building a meaningful program at NewGround. We addressed their skepticism and molded a stronger program.

When people ask, “Why should I vote? What difference does it make?” I believe it’s best to engage them directly, and admit there are shortfalls in our system of government. Above all, I’ve learned to listen.

When people are educated about the issues, when they have a point of view they want to share, they’ll make the time to vote, even if they are busy. That said, we need to partner with leaders and get them to encourage their constituencies to vote. At NewGround, we leaned on faith leaders at mosques and synagogues. For young voters, we need to add high schools, colleges, community centers and farmers markets.

There are terrific institutions doing important civic engagement work, such as vote.org, rockthevote.com, voteriders.org and mifamiliavota.org. Votivator promotes a buddy system, where people get together to read up on the issues.

Are we willing to knock on doors, build alliances with other organizations, and engage in direct – maybe difficult – conversations where we listen deeply to what people are saying to us, and make sure they feel heard?

The main task is to make sure people understand that what they think is important, and that they understand their vote is their voice. It makes a difference. Then maybe – just maybe – we can convince some of those 12 million undermobilized young people who didn’t vote in 2014 that it’s in their interest to show up next month and vote.

Aziza Hasan is executive director of New Ground: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change in Los Angeles and a participant in The Sacramento Bee/McClatchy Influencers series. She can be contacted at aziza@muslimjewishnewground.org. Find the series (with more Monday on young voters and the MeToo movement) at sacbee.com/influencers.

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