America’s first National Voter Registration Day came and went last September with the visibility and impact of a gnat on an elephant’s back.
The admirable goal of the organizers was to use rallies, teach-ins and celebrity media spots and appearances to highlight the little-known fact that nearly 50 million voting-age Americans aren’t registered, including more than 2 million here in Illinois.
Let me repeat that staggering figure: 50 million unregistered voters in what is arguably the world’s strongest democracy.
In 2010, 6 million of the unregistered told national census-takers they would have voted in the presidential election two years earlier but couldn’t because they hadn’t joined the voter rolls.
Why? Some missed the registration deadline, others didn’t know they had to register, and the rest weren’t sure how to go about it.
This epic failure to perform a simple civic task is what motivated several advocacy groups to mobilize around a national registration day, and their effort last Sept. 24 — 809 events across the country — was commendable.
But when it was over, and the numbers tallied, there were only 56,000 new registrants, including just over 1,600 in Illinois.
Why so few? My best guess is a combination of apathy, disillusionment, and the modern reality of too many competing priorities and too much digital clutter in our lives.
So yes — we have a vexing voter registration dilemma, and it’s compounded by another chronic problem — low turnout among eligible voters who are registered.
The Illinois primary is just over a week away, with key nominations at stake, including governor, but if "past is prologue," as Shakespeare wrote, our flagging democracy will take another hit — this one from registered voters who don’t show up at polling places to perform their most basic democratic obligation.
Turnout in March of 2010, the last primary in a non-presidential election year, was 23 per cent.
For the math-challenged, that’s less than one-fourth of our registered voters, or 18 percent of the voting age population.
That’s called civic "disengagement."
So why does all of this matter so much? Well, as the head of a watchdog organization, people often ask me what they can do about the waste, inefficiency and corruption we regularly uncover, or they see in government offices in their own communities.
The obvious answer is to consider all of the above at election time, and then vote wisely.
But you can’t vote if you’re not registered.
And, as the saying goes, if you don’t vote you’re part of the problem, not the solution.
Let’s hope the second National Voter Registration Day, scheduled for September 23, makes a bigger impact than the first one. If you want to learn more about it, visit nationalvoterregistrationday.org.
Another glimmer of hope is that Illinois begins on-line registration in July, and that—along with expanded early voting — could be an important step in the long march to reclaim our small "d" democracy and finally get the good government we pay for.
But it won’t happen unless legions of civic underachievers change their slacker ways by registering, paying attention and voting.
Forget about the upcoming primary — time is too short — but maybe we’ll see some progress by the general election in November.
That’s the goal, and I’ll keep preaching the "gospel" of civic responsibility between now and then.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com or 312-386-9097.