As the COVID-19 pandemic spirals out of control in the United States, the Nov. 3 election is increasingly in danger. Historically, only around half of eligible voters even vote in America. (In countries like Australia, where voting is mandatory, that number hovers around 90 percent.) Add to that dismal statistic the novel fallout from the virus — with closed polling stations, states in fiscal crisis, a lack of poll workers and increased risk of infection at the polls — not to mention the false White House attacks on the integrity of mail-in voting alternatives and the near-bankruptcy of the U.S. Postal Service, the toxic brew leaves the November election extraordinarily vulnerable to collapse.
Our broken system of government is not coming to the rescue.
If we are going to have a good election this fall, Americans must take that responsibility into their own hands. For that to happen, celebrity influencers must step up in droves to spread the nonpartisan message that “We the People” must cast votes for democracy itself.
NBA star LeBron James understands this. His get-out-the-vote organization, More Than a Vote, has been working with NBA coaches and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to convert NBA arenas for use as polling places. As the group’s executive director, Addisu Demissie, explained to me in an email: “We know what we’re up against, so the responsibility is on organizations like More Than A Vote to work with other willing partners to fill the vacuum and find creative solutions that ensure high turnout in our most vulnerable communities.” The effort already prompted the owner of the Atlanta Hawks Tony Ressler to agree with Georgia’s Fulton County Registration and Elections Board to donate the Hawks’ arena for use as a massive voting precinct in November — and also to staff it.
In 2018, numerous athletes, musicians and actors — including Alicia Keys, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kerry Washington, Pink, Melissa Etheridge, Melissa McCarthy, Jimmy Fallon, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Axl Rose, Taylor SwiftTaylor Alison SwiftMcAuliffe releases ad hitting Youngkin over his latest call for audit of voting machines On The Money — Presented by NRHC — Democrats cross the debt ceiling Rubicon Hillicon Valley — Presented by American Edge Project — Facebook experiences widespread outage MORE, Demi Lovato, Mindy Kaling, Kerry Washington, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Willie Nelson, Nick Jonas, and others — used social media to announce their votes on election day and encourage fans to head to the polls.
But this year, celebrities must do more — earlier and often. They must also do it urgently. As Beyoncé said last Sunday at the BET Awards: “We have to vote like our life depends on it, because it does.”
In a recent study, 38 percent of chronic non-voters across 10 swing states reported that the main reason they don’t vote isn’t that the logistics are too difficult (although they often are). It’s the belief that votes don’t matter or that “the system is rigged.” Non-voters also dislike their ballot options, a rejection that’s a byproduct of America’s two-party system. Among younger Americans, basic civic illiteracy also remains an alarming problem. In a 2016 poll, a whopping 10 percent of college students reported the belief that reality TV celebrity “Judge Judy” sits on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Another serious cancer in the American electoral process is increased polarization — the win-lose, us-them, right-wrong mentality that has penetrated the most foundational tenets of our democracy, including voting itself.
According to a review last year by Thomas B. Edsall for the New York Times, studies show that “[h]ostility to the opposition party and its candidates has now reached a level where loathing motivates voters more than loyalty.” Instead of policy preferences, “[a]nger has become the primary tool for motivating voters. Ticket splitting is dying out. [And] there has been a marked decline in the accountability of public officials to the electorate.”
More chilling is Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar’s conclusion that “children acquired a sense of party identification quite early in the life cycle without any ‘flickering awareness’ of party differences on the issues.”
Our kids need new messaging, and it has to come from the public figures they follow on social media.
If teenage TikTok users can allegedly dupe the Trump campaign with thousands of faux ticket requests to a rally, and if thousands can show up to protest police brutality during a pandemic, the youth of this country can make a difference in voting, too. As More Than A Vote’s Demissie explained by email, those responsible for trying to keep Black people from voting are also failing to keep Americans safe from COVID-19. Voting is about racial and social justice. That energy must be rechanneled into the election.
Celebrity influencers should spread basic information about how to register, how to vote, how to request absentee ballots and the security of mail-in voting. This has to happen now — election day will be too late. States need to order ballots, envelopes and scanning technology, and they need to hire and train workers to process unprecedented numbers of mail-in ballots. States can’t possibly achieve this if they don’t know how many people to expect in the first place.
Celebrity influencers should volunteer as poll workers — and encourage others to do the same. Most poll workers in this country are over the age of 60 and thus may be especially susceptible to serious illness or death from the coronavirus, while people under 30 are anxious about the future — witnessing a shattered economy, global warming, widespread preventable death and corruption at the highest echelons of politics. Young Americans want to do something about the chaos and uncertainty, but don’t know how. Becoming the new face of democracy is a first step, but one that few youths feel compelled to take. Celebrities can help light the path.
Celebrity influencers must work to trigger a deeper shift in how Americans view the right to vote, the benefits of unity and common ground in life and in politics and the reason why the system of government itself is worth saving. Under the administration of Donald J. Trump, the United States is careening away from government by “We the People” and towards a very sinister alternative. Yet maintaining a system of accountable government through legitimate elections is not about politics. Athletes can explain this in simple terms. Just as sports fans passionately support a particular team over another, they understand that the entire enterprise depends on having neutral umpires and fair rules of the game. Likewise, entertainers know how to appeal to the human need for a sense of belonging and connection; those skills can be harnessed to foster a new national identity that’s based on common values that include a free, fair, accessible and widely-used election system.
Time is of the essence to stem the tide of chaos and disenfranchisement, and we cannot rely on federal, state and local governments for a fix. More celebrities and influencers need to step up to the plate — and fast. Democracy itself depends on it.
Kimberly Wehle is a professor at University of Baltimore and author of the books "How to Read the Constitution — and Why,” and “What You Need to Know About Voting — and Why.” Follow her on Twitter @kimwehle.