The Think Again Brooklyns group hosted a forum on citizen engagement and the importance of voting, two weeks away from Election Day.
The Tuesday, Oct. 21, meeting, hosted at Brooklyn Park City Hall, featured three speakers talking about voter turnout, citizens’ relationships with legislators, and the importance of civic engagement in regards to the legislative process. The first speaker was David Schultz, a professor of political science and nonprofit administration at Hamline University, as well as a law professor at the University of Minnesota, and began with an anecdote on why he believes so many college students are, in his words, “broke and thirsty.”
“Only about 25 to 30 percent of college students vote,” said Schultz. “I say to my students, ‘There’s a simple reason why you are ignored in the political process. It’s because you don’t show up.’ And that’s what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the consequences of voting and why it matters.”
Schultz said that during a presidential election year, American voter turnout ranges from 55 to 56 percent, and during midterm election years, roughly 40 percent of citizens account for votes cast. The state of Minnesota, however, contrasts quite significantly with the national average
“We lead the nation in terms of voter turnout,” said Schultz. “In a presidential election year, we’ll have about between 75 and 78 percent of the population show up to vote. In a non-presidential election year, we will have maybe 55 percent.”
Schultz suggested that the common profile of an average voter who shows up is demographically consistent.
“(It’s been) white, it’s been male, it’s been Christian, it’s been better educated, it’s been richer,” said Schultz. “Conversely, we also know the profile of the average people who don’t show up to vote. Younger (people), people of color, the poor, those who are not as well educated. Those are the people who don’t show up to vote. And there are consequences for not showing up to vote.”
“If we think about the profile of the average member in Congress … (it is) white, male, Christian (and) older,” Schultz continued. “It sounds an awful lot like the profile of the average person who votes. If we start to look at different organizations that benefit in our society, if we start to look at the profile of the people who benefit in our society, we start to see that there’s a (bias).”
Schultz made an appeal to voters of under-represented communities to take charge in the electoral process if they wanted to see positive change.
“It’s going to be easy to say, ‘No one listens to me, no one cares, my vote doesn’t make a difference,’” said Schultz. “You need to vote to protect your interests, because no one else is going to do it for you. That’s your job in voting: to protect yourself. If you decide to say, ‘I don’t want to vote, nothing’s going to change,’ that’s OK, because the other people are going to vote instead.”
Certain states showing interest in voter ID laws would only make it harder for those people to have their interests served.
“If voting wasn’t so important, there wouldn’t be a concerted effort across many states such as Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin and other states to try to take away the right to vote,” said Schultz. “In many states, things such as voter ID, elimination of early voting, creating longer lines on Election Day have all been done with a purpose. (It) wouldn’t be done unless some people realized that voting made a difference.”
“You need to vote,” concluded Schultz. “The system ain’t never going to change, and is never going to listen to you if you at least don’t show up and try to make an effort.”
The second half of the forum saw former Minnesota Rep. Bill Schreiber and current State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, speak on the relationship between constituents and the members of Minnesota Legislature. Schreiber took issue with Schultz’ comments, mainly about legislators and college students.
“If you’re a state representative or a state senator, and you have a community college within your district or a vocational college, I can assure you you are engaged with that community college and the students that are there,” said Schreiber, who served in the House for 16 years. “You get to learn a lot about your community and how these community colleges are reaching out to those students, and what their aspirations might be. I don’t think legislators ignore college students.”
Schreiber said that the current recession makes it more difficult for constituents to get what they want, or for legislators to meet their expectations.
“As it relates to the Minnesota Legislature and voting, lots of us are really frustrated with Congress’ inability to get their job done,” said Schreiber. “I understand the frustration with a lot of people. Folks are really turned off by what’s going on at the federal level.”
“It takes time to be a student of government and understand the issues that are going on,” Schreiber continued. “At the state level, it’s totally different. Minnesota has a part-time legislature, a citizen legislature. It’s encouraged that you have people from all walks of life.”
Local politicians are more accessible to the people, closing the gap between politician and voter, Schreiber said.
“If you’re looking for elected officials that can get out and door-knock every house in their district, you can get to know people one-on-one,” said Schreiber. “Are you going to agree with them 100 percent of the time? Absolutely not. But it’s kind of interesting that every two years, they’re up for performance evaluation. At the legislative level, it’s not based on TV ads, but you’re able to look at what they’ve done and how they’ve voted.”
Champion delivered similar sentiments about the accessibility of Minnesota legislators, especially when it came to diversity.
“In the Legislature, you have a diverse cross-section of people who come from various vantage points, and I think that’s always important when you’re looking at an issue,” said Champion. “You always have different people who are looking at critical issues that we need to think about in real time.”
Champion pointed out that many pieces of legislation have their genesis in public, face-to-face input by citizens, which makes civic engagement all the more important.
“We get ideas for public policy by meeting you and talking to you,” said Champion. “I, and others, listen to those ideas, and we have a great exchange of dialogue. And from that conversation, (we) generate an idea where it becomes proposed legislation.”
“It’s an open process, and we represent you and it is your house,” Champion continued. “If you really want to be engaged, there’s a way for you to be engaged and figure out what’s going on. ... What we do at the Legislature impacts you more than what happens at Washington. We are busy working on your behalf.”
Contact Christiaan Tarbox at email@example.com or follow the Sun Post on Twitter @ecmsunpost.