By: Melissa Ryan
Virginia holds elections every year in November: Year 1 for Governor (most recently 2013); Year 2 for the U.S. Congress (2014); Year 3 for the Virginia legislature and statewide and local offices (2015); and Year 4 for the President and U.S. Congress (2016).
According to The League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area Education Fund, voter turnout in Year 3 elections has been declining for 30 years. Student pollsters from Christopher Newport University (“CNU”) report less than a quarter to a third of Virginia voters were engaged in lead up to the 2015 House of Delegates and state Senate races, while approximately two-thirds to three-quarters are already engaged with the 2016 Presidential election. Why would Virginia citizens be more interested in the national election than state and local elections? Arguably, decisions made by local government officials have a higher impact on the daily lives of citizens than other levels of government. For example, school boards, police, and fire departments have a significant impact on their constituents. This leads to an obvious question: Why aren’t Virginia voters showing up to vote in Year 3 elections?
Quentin Kidd, director of CNU’s Wason Center for Public Policy, claims the lack of interest in Year 3 elections has a simple answer: the lack of competition in the elections. Comparatively, Kidd already notes an unusual increase in interest in the 2016 presidential race, which he attributes to the fierce battles happening across party lines. The Daily Progress points out that even though “[a]ll 140 seats of the Virginia General Assembly are up for election [in November 2015], many voters won’t have much of a choice at the ballot box.” Fewer than half of the state legislature contests will have more than one candidate, and very few races are anticipated to be close. Critics of Virginia’s current electoral map proclaim this lack of competition is due to “unfairly drawn maps designed to benefit incumbents.” With the lack of competition and increased political polarization, it is no wonder many voters feel helpless and unmotivated to get out and vote in state and local elections.
The disturbing lack of participation in Year 3 elections led L. Henry Pratt, a former government teacher and now voter-mobilization entrepreneur, to attempt to incentivize more young people to vote. On Election Day 2015, Pratt plans to answer the following question in Arlington, Virginia: Are young people more likely to vote if given wristbands outside polling stations that entitle them to discount drinks at nearby bars? As many people know, Arlington’s Clarendon neighborhood is “millennial-rich.” Pratt created an Election Day bar crawl in that area as “a way to ‘encourage young voters to celebrate democracy.’” In 2011, the most recent Year 3 election, voter turnout in those millennial-rich precincts averaged 16 percent, whereas in the 2012 presidential elections, 62 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Pratt’s nonprofit group, Win the Future, Young America claims to have no interest in who wins any of the races; their interest is merely “drawing a larger share of Arlington’s young people to the polls.” Pratt’s efforts are expected to pass legal muster because voters will not be required to actually cast a vote or even prove that they are registered voters before receiving a wristband. [For a discussion of how voting-related giveaways usually clash with federal law, click here.] If these efforts prove successful, Virginians may be seeing more bar crawl election events in other millennial-rich areas in the future.
The bar crawl occurred after this article’s completion. According to the Win the Future, Young America website:
In looking at preliminary, unofficial numbers from the Virginia State Board of Elections, 605 more votes were cast in these targeted precincts in 2015 than in 2011, despite 479 fewer active registered voters. The average turnout rose from 15.9% in 2011 to 19.3% in 2015, for an increase of 21.8%. That is slightly above the 21.5% increase across the entire 47th House of Delegates district. The news is even better for the targeted precincts with a significant proportion of voters in their twenties. In the Woodbury precinct, with about 27% of registered voters in their twenties, turnout increased 31% from 2011 to 2015. In the Central precinct (38% of registered voters are in their twenties), turnout increased 33%!