Michelle Whittaker, Communications Director with FairVote

November 7, 2016

Fair Vote works to remove barriers to civic participation. What are some of the key barriers you see and what’s working to address them?

We see barriers in a few different contexts. Some involve be able to make our voice heard: the registration process, understanding local elections and who is running, are there candidates who match my needs and those of my community?  

In addition, Voter ID laws vary from state to state and that can be confusing. A standard process would help remove some of the barriers. It’s also important that people have access to candidates throughout the process.

Another major area for reform is how we treat citizens who have felony convictions. They have a hard path to navigate through the election process. Depending on where you live, there are different regulations around voting.

We are one of the few democracies in the world a

that does not have the right to vote enshrined in our Constitution.

We have 5.8 million citizens with a criminal background who don’t have the right to vote, mainly people of color who should be sharing their voice and contribute to the bigger American picture. It’s time we examined our criminal justice system’s approach to the rights of these citizens.


What do you want to see change for people with criminal convictions?

We are the only democracy that takes away the right to vote.  Denying ex-convicts rights is inconsistent with our values. A democracy should enable all people to fully participate. Citizens deserve to have their voices heard and to have a government that responds to the needs of their communities.

We are one of the few democracies in the world that does not have the right to vote enshrined in our Constitution. If our nation adopted the “right to vote” amendment, I think that would help increase voter turnout among all groups, not just formerly incarcerated people.

Some states are already doing this. In Virginia, for example, Governor McCall tried to pass a “right to vote” bill for those with a criminal record. His administration is now going to through the steps individually to restore these rights. Other states are doing the same but we need this to happen nationally.


What else can we do to increase voter turnout?

Our recent voter turnout report looked at the 2016 primaries and we had 60 million participate—that’s 29 percent of the eligible voter population. That suggests in part that there’s a disconnect between who is eligible and who’s able to register. In New York, for example, the deadline to register or change party affiliation was October the prior year. If you missed that, it’s too late.

Other factors influence turnout. Some local elections have very low turnout because they happen at times that don’t match people with working schedules. Many people don’t the dates of special elections or votes happening throughout the year.


What do you think we need to do to help young people feel civically engaged?

It has to begin early, with civic classes in junior high and high school, and educating students about of who their local and national representatives are before they reach age 18. Civic education is key in building connections, especially in communities of color. Parents, teachers and local organizations all have a role.

Another idea is to work within schools to enable younger students to vote in local elections, especially on issues that directly impact them. Studies show if you vote at age 16 or 17, it increases the likelihood that you will be a lifelong participant.


Will you be voting on November 8?

Absolutely. My parents always talked about voting and politics, which helped me understand the importance. My whole family participated in the 2016 primaries because we care about it. I want my daughter to be educated about this, so even though she’s just 2, I took her with me and gave her a sticker.

I want to be able to say, “Yeah, I voiced my opinions about what’s happening in America.”