Around the Institute

Election Day: 2014 Is A Big Deal — Or Is It?

November 4, 2014  • Institute Staff

On this Election Day, as voters cast ballots in local, state, and national elections, what’s at stake for Americans? We asked several of our program directors to weigh in on today’s elections and how the results will impact everyday Americans.  

Maureen Conway, vice president and executive director, Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program

State and local elections are critical; this is where politicians seem to be confronting the challenges of economic opportunity and trying to move forward new ideas and policies that help working families, such as paid leave laws, curbing practices of payday lenders, providing early childhood education, etc. These factors are all important to working families who are trying to earn a living, save money, and care for their families, but federal policymakers aren’t doing much about them — so the state and local elections are the ones to watch. 

Dan Glickman, vice president and executive director, Aspen Institute Congressional Program 

As a general rule, about 60 percent of eligible Americans vote in presidential elections compared to 70 percent of citizens of other industrialized democracies. But in midterm elections that percentage drops to only 40 percent. This is caused by a combination of demographics, voting laws, and general public interest. But no matter what the reasons, this is a huge problem. Voter participation is critical to establishing an effective government capable of tackling challenges like confronting Ebola and ISIL, improving economic opportunity in America, and ensuring laws governing the privacy and security of citizens are adequate. 

Nearly all the races for the US Senate this cycle are hard fought and running close and have many highly qualified candidates. Control of the Senate will in large part determine how effectively government can address issues before the nation. Midterm elections often do not make massive changes in party platforms, but they do send a message to governing parties in the House and Senate about what Americans want to see happen differently from the previous two years. Hopefully in 2014, more voters will take the time to cast a ballot and make their voices heard.

Eric Liu, director, Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program

Midterm elections are a signal example of the power of narrative to distort reality. Whatever the results are today, members of the media and political class will interpret them to mean “something:” dissatisfaction with the president; disenchantment of Latinos; a desire for divided government; a concern about government competence. We will discuss these interpretations earnestly and dissect them for lessons about what the American people want and believe. 

The problem with midterm elections is it’s all a fairy tale. The “American people” will, in the main, be absent on Election Day. For there are two constant truths about modern midterms: turnout is dismal, and those who do turn out are generally older, whiter and more conservative than America as a whole. This isn’t to fault the people who turn out, or the activists who get them to cast ballots: during our last midterms, adherents of the Tea Party were simply doing their job as citizens. It wasn’t their fault that they ended up with disproportionate influence in Congress. The fault lies more with those who fail to show up, who imagine that their votes don’t count and so don’t bother. What they forget is that there is no such thing as not voting; that not voting is voting — to affirmatively hand power to interests inimical to your own. And the fault lies also with commentators and crafters of conventional wisdom for perpetuating the myth that midterm results are reflective of public will or public interest.   

If every article about the 2014 election were to open with the lead, “Tonight, slightly more than half of slightly more than a third of those eligible to vote decided to…” that’d be progress, if only because it would puncture the myth of elections-as-mandates. But true progress will come when we won’t need shaming or chiding to get out and participate, when we will make our elections actually representative and our democracy actually democratic. That requires changing norms and the very culture of voting — work that our new Aspen Program on Citizenship and American Identity is eager to pursue. 

Anne Mosle, vice president and executive director, Ascend at the Aspen Institute 

What is at stake in these elections is leadership willing to step up and take action to break the stranglehold of poverty for children, parents, and families — action supported by Americans across race, gender, geography, and political party. Nearly 45 percent of all children in the US live in low-income families. Almost three-fourths of single-mother families are low-income, and people of color are more likely to be low-income than their non-people of color peers. While these past few years have been marked by polarization in US politics, Americans are united across a set of two-generation policies to lift families out of poverty. 

These two-generation policies work with children and parents together rather than with each in isolation. They are outlined in “Top Ten for 2Gen,” a policy agenda and set of guiding principles built on three years of discussions with the field. They are policies that state and federal policymakers can pursue immediately. They do not require new funding streams or legislation. These policies include the following:

  • Head Start partnerships to help the parents of low-income children further their own education and job training 
  • Including information on employment and job training in home visiting programs for pregnant women and their children 
  • Offering mental health screenings and services to both parents and their children at the same time
  • Making parents enrolled in college or workforce training programs eligible for state-funded childcare subsidies

They reflect the American value of opportunity for all to reach educational success and economic security… a level playing field where hard work can lead to the American dream.