Increasingly polarized parties foster voting

As of Monday, nearly 3,800 people had registered to vote in Whitman County during 2016, more than doubled from the less than 1,400 in the same time period during the 2012 election.

“People have a very vested interest in who is running for president,” said Whitman County Elections Supervisor Debbie Hooper.

Both the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) and ASWSU organizations across all WSU campuses have expanded voter outreach efforts this year with the Cougs Vote campaign. Erin McIlraith, marketing and communication coordinator for the CCE, which has registered 125 students this semester, said this led to increased awareness and registration.

These efforts have included increased tabling, class presentations, debate watch parties and the Goat the Vote campaign, during which ASWSU brought a goat onto the Glenn Terrell Friendship Mall to promote registration. But McIlraith said there is more at work in the increase.

“This has been a very polarizing election,” she said, “and I think that probably has a lot to do with more people wanting to have a say in it.”

Parker Blekkenk, associate director of ASWSU Legislative Affairs, said he has noticed this trend as well. He estimated that ASWSU has registered between 500 and 600 students. However, he said many he has talked to have not been inclined to vote.

“That’s been something we’ve been trying to kind of combat this semester,” Blekkenk said. “A lot of people are just so sickened by how polarized it’s gotten that they don’t want to vote.”

Foley Institute Director Cornell Clayton said this is common as the Democratic and Republican parties grow more distant in their policies. He said that although more people seem to be disgusted with the political atmosphere, particularly around the presidential race between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump, the data show this actually corresponds with increased voting.

Although polarization is usually thought of negatively, the cause of gridlock and instability, Clayton said the upside is it increases political participation.

“Voters are seeing the real difference between these two and where they would lead our country,” Clayton said. “That’s why they’re going to exert more effort to get out and vote.”

He explained it as a cost-benefit analysis, in which voters feel compelled to vote because they realize the stakes are higher in a race between candidates with highly contrasting views. They see the above-average benefit of their candidate winning, Clayton said, and the unusually bad consequences if they lose.

Additionally, he said, both candidates have been effective in appealing to certain demographics which were not previously involved in elections. He said Trump has reached people who once felt alienated by both parties, while the Clinton campaign is good at targeting groups which do not usually vote.

He said increased registration and voting is not a new phenomenon, but has been steadily occurring over the past 20-30 years, as the two parties have grown further apart. He said since the late 1970s and early 1980s, voter turnout nationwide has risen from 50 percent to 60 percent.

“Today,” he said, “Americans know it matters a lot whether Democrats or Republicans get in.”