November 08 2017

Looking past 'get out the vote' (CRAIN'S)

Solving the turnout problem requires a new approach

By Patricia Swann

More New Yorkers watched the World Series than voted in yesterday’s election.

Advocates will say we need to make voting easier, and that’s true. But what if an important and overlooked part of increasing voter turnout actually involves increasing civic participation the other 364 days per year?

If we want to get more of our neighbors to vote—not merely increase turnout by one or two points, but really deeply encourage civic participation—New Yorkers must be engaged in the issues. They must feel their own importance to the democratic process well before they enter (or avoid) the voting booth. That can’t start weeks before elections—it must be a perpetual process.

Now the good news. We’ve seen that some things work, with proper funding. Here are four ideas:

1. Action-based civics curricula in middle and high schools

Creating good citizens starts early. That’s why parents take kids in to the voting booth with them, and why they discuss the day’s news. It’s why we should focus on more robust civics education early on. Young people need to know they can make a difference—before voting age and after.

Generation Citizen, a national nonprofit with a local branch, has shown what’s possible on this front. Working in middle and high schools around the city, the organization brings civics to life. Students identify problems, build public support, speak at public forums and use the media to get things done.

Students have introduced statewide legislation to update New York's health education curriculum about opioid addiction. They’ve pressed for a City Council bill to require school cafeterias to publicize health inspection scores.

These lessons last: At the end of the semester, two-thirds of students measurably show increased civic knowledge, skills and motivation.

2. Participatory budgeting

Some people don’t vote because they don’t feel like local elections make a difference for them. The participatory budgeting process helps people have a say in how their local government spends money and connects the voting process with tangible local results.

The New York Community Trust, where I work, helped bring the program to New York City and expand it citywide. It has made civic participation more enticing for those who’d like to see improvements in their communities like refurbished playgrounds or new library computers or more trees in neighborhood parks. Other forms of civic engagement like volunteerism, philanthropic giving and advocacy for local capital improvements directly correlate to higher voter turnout.

3. Fund in-depth, thoughtful local reporting

Unbiased information goes a long way toward encouraging civic engagement. It’s no secret that local print journalism is struggling against the changing nature of the way we all consume news. But good, in-depth journalism not beholden to click rates helps cultivate a civically-minded, educated city.

With local favorites Gothamist and DNAinfo suddenly closing their doors, and metropolitan coverage in our city’s mainstream papers steadily shrinking, now more than ever philanthropy must step in to support good, dedicated local and political journalism to ensure an educated and civically-minded city. We’ve funded several nonprofit local news providers to produce great in-depth reporting.

4. Help nonprofits engage elected officials in Albany and D.C.

New York’s officials cannot act alone. Our nonprofit network can back up an ambitious agenda with grassroots advocacy of its own. While this may not explicitly shore up voting, it does build broad support for a local civic agenda.

That doesn’t mean that traditional "get out the vote" methods are not worth it—it just has to be part of a much larger effort starting now, with our local voting at an all-time low. Which is why at The New York Community Trust, we’re funding all these initiatives and more, including some great get-out-the-vote organizations including Community Votes and Minkwon Center for Community Action, in service of building a more active civic base.

It’s just not enough to get out the vote from September through November. Creating active citizens is a lifelong task.

Patricia Swann is senior program officer overseeing civic affairs grantmaking at The New York Community Trust, a foundation that is one of the largest funders of city nonprofits.