Let’s make voting a party
As the election hurtles toward us, even more eligible Americans than usual may choose not to vote — enlarging a gaping hole in American democracy. From coronavirus concerns to long waiting times to voter suppression efforts to disgust with both sides of the political aisle, there could be many factors keeping people away from the polls.
We should, of course, make mail-in voting, early voting, and other options available to anyone concerned about going to the polls on Election Day. But voting in person on Election Day is still crucial, and there will be places where the lines will stretch for hours, testing voters’ determination. There’s one step that could make a big difference in bringing people out and keeping them there long enough to vote: Let’s throw some parties at the polls.
In Australia, that land of backyard barbecues, they already do this. They throw hundreds of barbecues at polling stations across the country — a tradition known as “Democracy Sausage.” Going to the polls is a party where you see neighbors, hear some music, eat some food and celebrate your participation together. (To be fair, there are other reasons why voting rates are so high in Australia — everybody gets a holiday to vote, and it’s mandatory.)
Of course, it’s hard to throw a party in the middle of a pandemic — and voters will be fully cognizant of this, given President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. In many states, there would be limits on how many people could gather. Organizers interested in safety would need to ensure that everyone wore masks, stayed six feet apart and used hand sanitizer. (It might make sense to offer some free masks for those who showed up without them.) Masks would, of course, come off when people were eating their Democracy Sausage or whatever else was offered. But bands could certainly play music for the people standing in line — and remember, there’s already outdoor seating at restaurants across the country. A democracy party would pose no greater risk.
In most U.S. jurisdictions, election-related activities are banned within a specified distance of the polling place. But beyond that, in many places people who wanted to throw a party could get a permit and do so. A democracy party could include whatever its sponsors thought would help bring people out — food, music, and socially distanced activities for kids while their parents voted. Organizers could encourage partiers to “vote triple” — that is, texting or calling their friends to come out to vote and enjoy the party.
Democracy parties likely would vary a lot from one part of the country to another. In Louisiana, they might serve gumbo or jambalaya, and everything from a jazz band to a zydeco combo might play. In Wisconsin, you might end up more closely modeling the Australian approach, with bratwurst.
There are countless groups working to get out the vote, from the League of Women Voters to Rock the Vote. Each of them could choose to sponsor such democracy parties wherever it seemed likely to get more people into polling booths. The political parties, of course, have the largest, most targeted get-out-the-vote campaigns: They could each choose to sponsor parties wherever the festivities seemed likely to bring out more of their voters than of the other side’s.
Celebrating democracy with your neighbors every election should become an American tradition. The parties can improve when the pandemic is behind us. Partying would help bring out the vote and bring us together. It would remind us how precious our democracy really is, worth celebrating and participating in.
Matthew Bunn is the James R. Schlesinger Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
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