Daniel Ra / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Charles Stewart III giving a talk on the importance of voter registration and youth voters in Call Auditorium on Nov. 6, 2019.

November 7, 2019

Experts Discuss Importance of Voting Rights and Democratic Participation

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As the next presidential election quickly approaches, two leading experts on political science and government dovetailed to speak on the importance of exercising the right to democracy in a time where the words “politics” and “change” almost go hand-in-hand.

Prof. Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Prof. Stephen Ansolabehere, a government professor at Harvard and a renowned expert in voting rights cases, spoke on voter turnout at Call Auditorium Wednesday in Kennedy Hall.

According to Prof. Stewart, a large part of the public’s hesitation and mistrust behind voting turnout is the use of “foreign meddling.” Stewart stressed the need to “never attribute to malice what can be described or explained by incompetence.”

Instead, Stewart credits issues such as faulty equipment, confusing ballots or absentee ballot confusion to be larger causes of voter inaccuracy.

Despite the issues, Stewart expressed his belief that the best elections in the country had happened in 2016.

“I’m much more optimistic about the state of elections than most people are,” Stewart said. “But we can only be optimistic if we are paying attention.”

Ansolabehere spoke on voting rights, and legal cases that showcase the changes seen in voting. In 1965, there were two major reforms that had wide-reaching effects Ansolabehere highlighted: the Reapportionment Revolution and the Voting Rights Act.

“Democracy is a product, and it’s incumbent on us to step forward and fight for that,” Ansolabehere said, stressing the need for people to take advantage of these shifts when they occur.

Regardless of these improvements, there were still an abundance of voting-related court cases in 2010, which Ansolabehere attributed to the Voting Rights Crisis — a series of laws passed by states that limited the accessibility to voting, such as the requirement of photo IDs.

Ansolabehere delved into another voting crisis in 2015 where Alabama illegally violated the 14th amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. African-Americans were disproportionately impacted by Alabama’s actions which consolidated their political influence to urban areas in an attempt to diminish their influence elsewhere.

Gerrymandering cases have reached the courts in Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania — and these state courts will play a role defining “party fairness” in future years, Ansolabehere said.

Prof. Rosemary Avery, policy analysis and management, coordinated the event. She told The Sun that the event was intended to demonstrate that voting is a right in addition to a privilege.

Avery emphasized that, given next year’s upcoming election, “there couldn’t be anything more important than looking into the integrity of our democratic process.”

Avery also set up voter registration tables around the perimeter of the auditorium to help educate attendees on how to register themselves.

This sentiment was echoed by Stewart as he spoke on how crucial registration is as a precondition for voting.

Ansolabehere also stressed the importance of the student and youth vote: “You are the future. As the culture and society change, it’s up to that next generation to put out there what they want.”

“There’s something to be said in terms of our turnout civic education,” Stewart told The Sun. “We do an abysmal job of turning out young people.”

As part of this education, Stewart expressed the importance of recognizing that there are flaws in the voting system, but the necessity of voting regardless. “Threats don’t go away, but it is important to identify what is a threat.”

Despite these uncertainties, Stewart challenged students and voters to take the harder route. “It’s too easy to settle into a standard way of thinking of the world,” he said.