Maximizing Voter Turnout in the Presidential Election

with David Thornburgh of the Committee of Seventy

Despite predictions for record voter turnout in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic presents challenges for voters in the upcoming presidential election.

David Thornburgh, President and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, discusses barriers that exist and how states and counties can maximize voter turnout.

Posted on:

Oct 02, 2020

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: As the 2020 presidential election gets closer, experts predict a massive voter turnout. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. The nation is getting ready for its first national election in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that means many states and municipalities are hard at work making sure all Americans can exercise their right to cast a ballot. David Thornburgh is the President and CEO of Committee of Seventy, and he joins me now to talk about the challenges this cycle as well as the solutions. David, thank you for being here.

Thornburgh: Oh, my pleasure, Tetiana.

Anderson: So, you are a public policy expert. You have been a civic leader. You are a steward of good governance and have been watching that for years. Every time an election rolls around, we talk about this thing called massive voter turnout. How difficult is something like that to predict?

Thornburgh: Well, this one's actually a little easier to predict than most just because of the extraordinary interest in this election. What's unusual this year is that many states, like my home state of Pennsylvania, are going to have to run essentially two parallel elections. One is an extensive vote-by-mail operation, and the other is the traditional in-person voting operation, so enormous challenges for our states and counties who actually administer elections in this country.

Anderson: And that brings me to the ideas about some of the challenges that we're facing. And one of them is, of course, the ease of voting because of COVID-19. What are you seeing when it comes to that challenge, other challenges, and some of the solutions?

Thornburgh: Well, you mentioned the big one, this pandemic. There are also a lot of states, again, like my home state of Pennsylvania, who have new voting rules. You can vote by mail where you couldn't before, or their polling places have changed, or there are new policies or procedures. So voters have an enormous challenge to try to interpret those changes and make sure that they're fully equipped to vote safely and securely when they head to the polls or when they sit down at their kitchen table to fill out their mail ballots. So, enormous challenge in reaching voters and making sure that they feel confident about their process and that their vote will count.

Anderson: So, you guys are obviously heavily involved in making sure that the ballots that people cast do count. What are you seeing in the way of solutions? Are some states doing certain things others should look at -- municipalities doing things others should look at? What is working?

Thornburgh: Sure. Well, you know, the way to communicate complicated information is to break it into small bites. And that's something we're pouring ourselves into. We've been around for 116 years here in Philadelphia. And educating voters is one of our core pieces of our mission. So we're doing everything we can. I think you're seeing a lot of states trying to learn quickly from each other about how to overcome that communications challenge -- obviously, using websites, the social media, all kinds of ways to reach voters, to reassure -- again, reassure them that -- about their voting options and how they can execute those options. So, in the best of circumstances, there's a lot of creativity, there's a lot of energy, and there's a lot of hard work out there around the country.

Anderson: You talked about the idea that the Committee of Seventy is based in Pennsylvania, but the work you do isn't just centered there. You really impact the nation. Explain how that is.

Thornburgh: Sure. We try to take seriously our position here in Philadelphia, which is the birthplace of our democratic republic, and to make sure that what we do resonates and reverberates around the rest of the country. And one of the things we've really been promoting is the ideals of active citizenship. And if I could just tick off five habits of effective citizenship that we're trying to promote -- one, in this election year, is, obviously, of voting. The second is -- and this is really important -- to choose your news wisely. A lot of competing news streams out there, some better than others, and we want people to really think carefully about that. The third is to invite diverse perspectives in making up your mind about politics -- a real challenge these days. The fourth is learning how it works -- is true for the voting process, but, also, our government at all levels -- enormously important. And then the fifth habit is to act, which includes voting again, but being an active citizen, being in communication with your elected officials -- that's a right and a responsibility we have as Americans that we hope all embrace going into the future.

Anderson: Certainly five habits that certainly apply nationally, so that's helpful to hear. I want to get back to this election, and a lot of people are saying it really matters. So what is it that really matters to them when they're going to the polls this time, and how do you know?

Thornburgh: Sure. Well, there's several different ways to approach that. I think we always remind people that, you know, when they look at the park across the street or the quality of their schools or their colleges, universities -- everything -- those are all decisions that are made by the people that we elect. But, at a broader level, I think it's important to remember, again, what I said about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and, also, the legacy of this country as we formed it over the last 200 and -- 200-some years, remembering that this year of 2020 marks a significant anniversary in two respects -- one, it's the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment that secured the right of women in this country to vote. The other anniversary is this is the 150th anniversary of the passage of the 15th Amendment, which secured the right of formerly enslaved people to vote, a right that obviously wasn't realized until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. So, when all else fails, keep in mind the legacy that so many of our forefathers and foremothers worked to secure. And that, again, I think, underlines the responsibility that we all have as Americans to make sure that we do our bit to contribute to the health of this republic.

Anderson: David Thornburgh of the Committee of Seventy, thank you so much for joining us.

Thornburgh: Oh, my pleasure.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the country, be sure to visit I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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