Major League Baseball’s All-Star game, scheduled for Tuesday, has become a lackluster affair for many fans.
Democracy watchers, however, have reason to be interested in the record-breaking 620 million votes fans cast online for their favorite players. This far eclipses the 129 million votes cast in the last US presidential election. With the 2016 race already underway — and crowded on the Republican side — is there anything the politicians can learn from MLB’s success at the online ballot box?
While there’s much to be said for MLB’s use of electronic ballots to simplify voting, more than that is required to stem America’s sliding turnouts on election days.
Baseball balloting aside, Americans aren’t enthusiastic voters. They trickle to polls in numbers that put US participation among the lowest in established democracies. Only 54.9 percent of Americans voted for president in 2012, and for those under 24, turnout was just over 41 percent, nearly 30 percentage points below those over 65. In midterm, state, and local elections, turnout across all age groups is even worse.
Mind you, MLB didn’t have to worry about pesky details like guaranteeing citizenship or assuring that people cast just one ballot. In fact, fans were encouraged to vote up to 35 times, and nothing prevented the dedicated from using different e-mail addresses to get around that limit.
Josh Donaldson received the most votes in the All-Star balloting — over 14 million — toppling the previous record by 3 million. Donaldson plays for the Toronto Blue Jays, so perhaps it’s fitting to look north of the border for clues on how Americans’ passion for baseball might transfer to politics.
Canadian research, including that by Samara Canada, a nonpartisan charity that works to improve political participation, found that people don’t vote for two main reasons: access and motivation.
Access barriers capture the logistics of voting, such as not knowing where to vote, or not having a registration card. Motivation barriers capture citizens’ attitudes and beliefs about politics, such as whether someone believes their vote matters, that voting is important, or that there is a real choice among candidates.
While both barriers are important, Samara’s research confirms that motivation barriers are the real challenge for those hoping to increase voter turnout.
Unfortunately, most proposals about voter turnout, including calls for online voting or more polling stations, target access barriers. Sure, rules that threaten to decrease access — such as state laws that unreasonably tighten voter ID requirements — should be rejected. But at the same time, meaningful efforts — partisan and nonpartisan — are needed to change the way political participation is invited and encouraged.
For example, more must be done to open up politics to the public, particularly young people. A well-supported national organization that facilitates and celebrates political service, as AmeriCorps does for community service, would help educate Americans on why politics matters and create a more welcoming political culture. The recently opened Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston is one promising step in this direction.
In addition, political parties should be required to set aside some of their tax-subsidized funds for voter education and citizen engagement. This could be done by establishing educational foundations that target demographics often left out of mainstream politics, including new citizens.
Finally, the main reason people decide to get involved in the political process is that they are invited by someone they know and trust in their community. Local nonprofits, for instance, can help introduce their members to politics by integrating political engagement into existing programs in ways that aren’t intimidating.
Although this engagement must begin in between elections, it is ultimately the ballot box that matters most. There are good reasons to explore online voting, but not until motivational barriers are tackled. People will figure out the logistics of voting if they believe it’s important to fill out a ballot.
Alison Loat, who now lives in Boston, is cofounder of Samara Canada.