The Puerto Rican Approach to Democracy: Partying
Where do voters in the U.S. turnout the most? Maybe Iowa or New Hampshire, states that hold the nation’s first caucus and primary every election season? Or perhaps Washington D.C., the nation’s capital?
The answer, surprisingly, is Puerto Rico — a US territory that only sends a nonvoting member to Congress and has no electoral college representation. Turnout on the island consistently exceeds 80 percent. Only four other countries in the Western hemisphere maintain higher turnout rates, and all have mandatory voting laws.
But here’s a mystery — Puerto Ricans living stateside turn out at a rate of just 57%, equal to the average rate for voting-age Hispanics nationwide. What is it about Puerto Rican elections that inspires voter participation on the island?
The answer: voting parties. On Election Day in Puerto Rico parades and caravans flood the neighborhoods and citizens take to the streets to cheer for democracy and support their candidates. Voting becomes a lot more compelling and fun when coupled with a community-wide celebration, as opposed to the relatively dry, bureaucratic style most voters are used to.
This wasn’t always the case. In the mid-19th century, polling places would be set up in saloons where eligible voters could drink, argue, and cast their votes on the way the country should be run. Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University, thinks that eligible voter turnout could have been as high as 80% in those times, similar to Puerto Rico today. Since the 1930s turnout has languished at or below 62%.
Chicago native Chance the Rapper’s Parade to the Polls is a recent example of what could be. At around 6:00pm the night before Election Day 2016, Chance finished up his free concert in Chicago’s Grant Park and then led the crowd to an early voting center a few blocks away. Organized by Chance’s nonprofit SocialWorks, Parade to the Polls was especially successful at getting young voters to turn out for the election. By nightfall, their ballots were part of the over 323,000 votes that had been cast early in Chicago — a 24% increase from the previous 2008 record.
CivicNation, a nonprofit that focuses on increasing community engagement, is leading a campaign called VoteTogether to create “voting parties” in neighborhoods across America for the 2018 elections. These family-friendly events will include street food, music, games, and photo booths to bring local communities together. The goal is to spark a change in the culture of voting. Interested citizens can commit to hosting voting parties in their area, hopefully instituting the tradition for election cycles to come.
Progress like this is heartening, but we are far from the 80% turnout seen in some of the more civically-active democracies. Perhaps voting parties are part of the solution.
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By Gabe Schoenbach, BallotReady Intern