Voter Participation Center Faces Tough Hurdle Keeping Voters Engaged in Negative Political Environment

Founded in 2003 by Page Gardner, the Voter Participation Center (VPC) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging unmarried women, minorities, and Millennials to vote, which the organization has dubbed the “Rising American Electorate (RAE).”

“We are very much concerned with the underrepresented — those in our society who are not participating at a level that is consistent with their general representation in the eligible voting population,” said Gail Kitch, executive vice president of communication and finance for VPC, in an interview for IVN.

“So closing the gap between the numbers of the groups we associate ourselves with [is the goal], because they are underrepresented and they are unmarried women, Millennials, and minorities. This group is going to represent 57% of the eligible voting population in 2016, but in the most recent presidential election voted at a level of 48%. So you can see there’s a fairly significant gap there.”

So far, the VPC’s main method of encouraging people to vote is through old fashioned mailing lists. Kitch claims that while the organization is considering other avenues for interacting with potential voters, mailing lists still remain the most reliable due to their universal reach.

“Mail allows you to reach the individual you are trying to reach fast,” said Kitch. “We have also been doing some work with online voter registration and turnout, which is what we’re really interested in, but our starting point is getting folks registered to vote.”

Kitch states that while the group is doing more with online voter registration, the venture has proven challenging.

“At this point it still remains the case that online registration remains fairly complicated and also not always measurable.” Kitch explained. “You can’t tell if you’ve accomplished your goal because there’s no way to be certain that the person was able to successfully access what they needed online.”

I like to think that the work we do serves as an antidote to that partisan bickering we find so off putting.
Gail Kitch, Voter Participation Center
With more and more states beginning to allow online voter registration, such an issue will likely be a challenge for the VPC in the 2016 election. In addition to increasing awareness, VPC plans to educate voters on local voting restrictions and mobilization efforts.

Research from VPC has revealed an increased amount of participation from its target demographics in presidential elections, yet the organization sees room for improvement when it comes to midterm elections, where the RAE notoriously underperforms. According to the organization’s website, “more than 75 million members of the Rising American Electorate did not vote” in the 2014 midterm elections.

Kitch claims that one big goal for 2016 is to get voters to continue to vote in 2018.

“We want to ensure that these folks are continuing to participate in what would be considered off-year elections — the midterm elections,” said Kitch. “Yes, the President is key and federal elections are important, but in those midterms — those non-presidential years — you have key state races, governors, and state legislatures.”

Still, there is another major challenge the VPC must contend with that might be a tougher hurdle to clear; namely, the ever-increasing partisanship of national elections. It has turned into a hostile environment that sometimes serves to drive away voters.

“Some of the increasing negative aspects associated with heavy negative partisanship we see sometimes can be a way to suppress turnout,” Kitch explained. “So, if anything, it probably means we have to redouble our efforts. I like to think that the work we do serves as an antidote to that partisan bickering we find so off putting.”

The challenge only seems to be growing as political parties and outside groups spend unprecedented amounts of money on negative attack ads during election cycles. While all of this is going on, reports suggest that the number of “safe” seats in Congress continues to grow, leading many voters to believe that no matter what, their voice won’t matter in elections because the game has already been rigged to favor the incumbent or one of the two major political parties.