Civic Engagement and the First-time Voter (part 1)

with David Thornburgh of the Committee of Seventy

National Government

The population of young, eligible voters outnumbers the population of senior voters, according to US News and World Report.  And while young people have the power to shape election, first-time voters have a notoriously low turnout on Election Day.  The discussion continues in part 2 of Civic Engagement and the First-time Voter.

A discussion with David Thornburgh, President and CEO of the Committee of Seventy.

Interview recorded June 14, 2017.  Hosted by Robert Traynham.

Read a partial transcript of this interview below:

Traynham: Young Americans represent a major political force, with 49 million eligible voters under the age of 30. However, according to Tufts University, less than half of young voters turned out for the 2016 presidential election. Hello, everyone, and welcome to “Comcast Newsmakers.” Im Robert Traynham, and joining me is David Thornburgh. Hes the President and C.E.O. of the Committee of Seventy in Philadelphia. David, welcome to the program.

Thornburgh: Thank you, Robert.

Traynham: So, what I just mentioned a few moments ago is a little startling. Why is it that young people, particularly under the age of 30, come out in low numbers to vote?

Thornburgh: Yeah, well, let me make the news even a little grimmer before we get to the solution. Were, you know, a longstanding civic organization based in Philadelphia. We care a lot about turnout for local elections for mayor and district attorney and so forth and so on, and the numbers for young turnout get even grimmer. So we have our work cut out for us. Its a huge issue for us. Weve been around for a hundred years, and we just fundamentally believe that more people better informed make democracy work. Thats the play. When you look at young voters, I think that there are really three things going on. One is we have to make it easier to vote. The idea of a letter with a stamp that you mail in to get an absentee ballot is, you know… circa 1950.

Traynham: Arcane?

Thornburgh: Yeah. Kids dont know what a stamp is. The second thing is you have to reinforce the sense that it counts, that it matters, that when you vote for a district attorney, youre doing something about, you know, safety. When you vote for a school-board member, youre doing something about your schools. The third thing is that youve got to try to rebuild the culture of voting. You know those little “I voted” stickers? Thats an important step forward, but what you really want is people to think of themselves as voters — young people to say, “Thats part of who I am. Its cultural. Its my community. Its my church. Its just who I am.” So thats whats led us down a path to something I want to share with you.

Traynham: David, you mentioned a few moments ago that perhaps maybe people do not feel connected to city services, if you will. In many ways, perhaps, maybe theyre not inspired. Could it also be that, you know, “Look, Im working two jobs. I dont have a car. Voting is just not very convenient for me.” What do you think or what recommendations do you have to inspire people to get out and vote?

Thornburgh: Yeah. Well, as I said, part of it is literally knocking down the little hurdles that stand in your way, because people are busy, and people do have children and family and jobs and so forth and so on. So, you know, weve always been in favor of things like early voting or mail voting or making absentee ballots easier, that remove some of those barriers. But as I said, the hardest nut to crack but maybe the most important is creating this culture of voting. And thats what led us this summer, during the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia… …to sponsor and underwrite a play that was called “Voices of Voting,” created by a fabulously talented guy named David Bradley, that tries to connect young voters, high-school-age voters, proto-voters, with the struggle to achieve the right to vote in this country, which, as you know, is very real and significant and people lost their lives, but its ancient history to folks. So it was a huge success, just an incredible production. We had 2,000 kids come through that.