October 14, 2015


Increasing Civic Engagement Requires Understanding Why People Have Chosen Not to Participate

Last month, I was a poll watcher for the mayoral primary in Washington, DC. My duties were to monitor several polling places to confirm that each Precinct Captain was ensuring that the City’s election laws were being followed on site; in particular, that everyone who believed that they were qualified to vote was able to do so, even if through a provisional ballot. While, thankfully, I did not witness any violations of DC law, I also did not see many voters. The turnout for the election was the lowest since 1974, the beginning of home rule in the District of Columbia. Only 27% of registered voters cast ballots.

Between conversations with friends and neighbors and reading post-mortems on the election, anecdotal evidence abounds as to why turnout was so low.

Maybe people opted not to vote out of disgust with the current political climate in the city after witnessing a series of Federal investigations and indictments of local elected officials and campaign staff. Maybe switching the primary from its customary Fall date to early April confused voters and many did not realize Election Day was April 1st. Maybe none of the candidates were truly inspiring, so voters chose not to educate themselves about their choices. I spoke to an acquaintance soon after Election Day who told me that he had not voted because, even though he knew he would be out of town on Election Day, he did not find time to vote early or get an absentee ballot.   Yet, on Election Day, I met a young man who was voting despite still suffering significant after effects from being shot in the head twice.

Into this complicated environment comes an exciting new start-up – Brigade Media. Napster co-founder and billionaire Sean Parker has raised a $9.3 million round of funding for his new company, which seeks to boost the level of civic engagement, including voting, among U.S. residents. A VentureBeat article says that Brigade Media will address issues at the Federal, state and local levels. An article in Politico suggests that “[t]he company will focus on underlying societal problems that make it difficult for citizens to engage in government.”

If Brigade Media is able to address some of the underlying barriers to political participation in the U.S., it has the potential to be an extremely influential company. For me, its success would be defined, at least in terms of social impact, by expanding the number of people who vote and otherwise participate in the political process and by amplifying the voices, between election days, of people who currently vote.

According to some 2013 Pew research, the greatest barriers to civic participation – and, also, home broadband adoption – are income and education. People who live in higher income households and who have attended or graduated from college are consistently more likely than people with lower incomes or education levels to take part in many online and offline civic behaviors, including: (1) Working with fellow citizens to solve a problem in one’s community; (2) Attending a political meeting on local, town, or school affairs; (3) Being an active member of a group that tries to influence public policy or government; (4) Attending a political rally or speech; (5) Working or volunteering for a political party or candidate; (6) Contacting a government official about an important issue, either online or offline; (7) Signing a petition, either digitally or on paper; and (8) Commenting on a news story or blog post online.

There is some evidence that neighborhoods in Washington, DC with higher incomes and greater college graduation rates saw greater levels of participation in the April primary election. For example, in the zip code containing Precinct 120, where the 15% voter turnout was approximately 18% less than turnout for the 2010 mayoral primary, the median household income is below the Washington, DC average, the unemployment percentage is above average, and percentage of the population with a college degree is significantly below average for the City, according to city-data.com. In contrast, according to the same website, in the zip code housing precinct 52, voter turnout actually increased between 2010 and 2014 from approximately 49% to approximately 50%, while household income is significantly above the Washington, DC average, unemployment is significantly below average, and the percentage of people with a bachelor’s degree or higher is above average for Washington, DC.

Brigade Media and other organizations certainly can affect civic participation both by better utilizing existing technology and developing new applications, even if voter turnout will always depend at least to some degree on the particular candidates running for office and the political climate at the time of the election. Developing tools that are tailored to both desktop and mobile devices will be critical, given the political participation and broadband adoption disparities across different demographic groups. While home broadband connections are still very important for researching civic issues and engaging in on-line political organizing, identifying ways to foster more meaningful political participation through mobile devices will reap the greatest dividends. I can envision new applications, specifically created for politics, which allow people to take advantage of two of the best aspects of smartphone ownership – short messaging and photo tools – to enable new ways of organizing which are less reliant on a desktop platform. I can also imagine a new fundraising application that allows one person to solicit and bundle numerous small contributions also without having to use a dedicated desktop application. Easing ongoing access to participation in the political process should make people feel more invested in their communities and ultimately more likely to participate on Election Day. It is welcome news when any new organization, for-profit or non-profit, takes on this important mission.


  1. I don’t vote because I know it is a waste of time. It’s been proven over and over again. Read the book *The Lucifer Effect*. It talks about situational affects on people. If you vote for people to have unjust power over others they will invariably want more and create more power to themselves. Lysander Spooner has written extensively on the subject over 100 years ago on how voting doesn’t work. No, the only thing that matters is the battle of ideas in the hearts and minds of people. That is is the only effectual and lasting change for a better world.

    • It’s a point worth considering. What evidence is there to suggest that increasing civic engagement, particularly in the realm of voter turnout, is in any way correlated to some positive outcome? Suppose we somehow increase voter turnout across the board…is there any reason to believe that this will change the _fact_ that political decision-making nearly exclusively follows monied interests?

      Perhaps the best way to improve and increase civic engagement is to fix the system so that when engaged, voters actually make a difference. I.e. that political outcomes actually correlate highly with the voters actual interests instead of that of those with all the money and power.

      • @pete.d,

        Sorry for the slow reply.

        Good questions. It would be interesting to have actual facts. As to your second question we must remember that voters vote with self interest also, so, most people will vote for politicians that will line their pockets the most. Hence the reason monied interests have such a sway, business do the same thing that individuals do, they look to line their pockets. So, having a system that allows the taking of money from different groups and then gives that money to those that are favored most is inherently flawed, since everyone will try and maximize “their” portion of the pie.

        To fix the system requires a radical rethinking of what a good system would be in the first place and a solid understanding of psychological interactions between people. It would also require a willingness to remove old biases. This is a difficult thing to do. So, inherently, it must be a “bottom up” approach and not top down, since, the current system would most likely need to be entirely abolished. Those currently benefiting from the current system at the top and bottom will not like that.

        Change can be difficult and takes many years or rather decades/centuries/millennia to occur. I think with how much information is passed around that the process of change to a better world might actually occur more quickly, hopefully.

  2. avatar Harry Johnston says:

    I have to admire the … audacity, I suppose … of scheduling an election for April 1st.

  3. There’s also the matter of how much it costs to vote. Even if you ignore the cost of deciding which candidate to vote for, there’s the whole thing about getting to the polling place, taking time off from work (or getting an absentee ballot), having the proper ID and so forth. Some of those costs can be reduced by an app, and the app may deliver information that makes the payoff for voting seem greater, but a lot of the costs require other actions to ameliorate.

    And of course one always has to be at least a little suspicious about exactly what kind of engagement someone with a pile of money to promote a free app is attempting to engender.

  4. How’s Brigade Media going to address Voter ID requirements?

  5. avatar Andrew Crystall says:

    FPTP for national elections, leads to 2.x parties, neither of which represent what many people want.

    And PR, among it’s many other benefits (like parties resembling their voters far more closely), tends to boost turnout.
    Germany’s system is notable, afaik.