What Does Telling People to Vote Actually Accomplish?
If you’ve opened up Instagram or Facebook in the last few weeks, chances are you’ve been told to register to vote, either by the platform itself or a brand, influencer, or former high school classmate. With voter registration deadlines swiftly approaching for much of the country, this rallying cry is only going to get more intense. Get out the vote campaigns are nothing new, but they have taken on a new urgency in 2020. As Amanda Mull points out in The Atlantic, it’s also led to those not normally engaged in voter efforts, like brands, to push voter registration on their audience.
Mull largely dismisses these efforts as craven attempts to look good without having to actually spend money on causes. And, for some companies, like Facebook, this certainly rings true. Facebook arguably has much to gain from a second Trump term. It’s also easy to see why companies are hesitant to actually endorse a candidate. But after a summer of historic protests, when many of these companies also released statements in support of Black Lives Matter, the non-partisan endorsements are more awkward than they would have in years past. If you’ve publicly stated, as many of these businesses have, that Back lives matter, is it that much more controversial to tell people to vote for the Presidential candidate who hasn’t railed against the BLM movement in public?
Businesses aren’t the only ones putting out non-partisan voter registration calls. Youtuber David Dobrik has created his own voter registration campaign in which he plans to give away Teslas.
ok I knew it: celebs and influencers are literally competing with their get out to vote campaigns so that they can get even more kudos and press pic.twitter.com/G8jRWkmHPZ— Tanya Chen (@tanyachen) September 30, 2020
Unlike Facebook, Dobrik would actually seem to have a lot to gain from voting Trump out of office. He is one of more than 650,000 immigrants participating in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, commonly referred to as Dreamers, which the Trump administration has worked to dismantle.
There’s a long history of seemingly progressive organizations making explicitly non-partisan efforts to register voters, like Rock the Vote, HeadCount, and When We All Vote. Many such efforts are aimed at young people and those not currently engaged in the political process. The unspoken assumption seems to be that, if more young people voted, they would vote Democratic. And while polls show younger voters are favoring Biden, the idea that simply driving up voter numbers is enough to regain a Democratic majority seems naive in light of the grassroots support for Trump.
It is also part of a long-standing American tradition of handing structural problems over to individuals. The concept of littering, for example, places the blame for waste on consumers, not the manufacturers who create it in the first place. Voter turnout is low in America, but there’s plenty of evidence that that’s not due to voter apathy: Aside from outright voter suppression efforts in the name of non-existent voter fraud, voters often lack time off work to vote and face a byzantine system where poll places move and mail-in ballots come with the wrong address.
Get out the vote campaigns and groups could instead advocate for better access to voting. But it’s also not enough to just tell people its important to vote. They need a why. Democrats have become too reliant on miming the kind of lessons we learned in Civics class: People fought for our right to vote, voting is important, voting is our duty. If it hasn’t worked in the past, there’s no reason to think it will work again. Many are predicting record voter turnout for 2020. But if Biden wins, Democrats will lose Trump as a boogeyman to motivate voters. Republicans may be actively working to suppress the vote, but anodyne registration measures from the left may also lose another generation that isn’t particularly interested in figuring out what it means to rock the vote.