For decades I have been accosting total strangers about their electoral choices and have always come away learning something. This year, I staked out a mall on Route 46 in Parsippany, New Jersey while my wife went crafts shopping.
I met Ryan Ernst, a 22 year-old who was working at the mall and had a second day job. "It's tough getting by. In the last 18 months, I lost two jobs and just got two more because people knew me and trusted me," he said.
Was he registered to vote, I asked?
"Well, honestly, I really should get out there and vote," he conceded. "I mean, I'd like my opinion heard, but I am just too busy actually."
He had some ideas. He was bright, hardworking and determined. This election day, our nation will be diminished from not hearing from Ryan and the tens of millions of other Americans like him who are not registered to vote.
Studies have found a big chunk of the cohort of our non-franchised fellow Americans are mostly younger, often of color, poorer and transient out of economic necessity. For them, the advanced registration and multi-week residency requirements imposed by most states can have the same effect on their political participation as the poll tax and literacy tests had on another generation of marginalized Americans.
As it is now, the most disciplined voting participants tends to be white, middle-aged and wealthier. They know the rules and the rules work for them.
If Ryan lived in Wyoming, Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maine, North Carolina, Iowa or Idaho, all he would have to do is show up come election day for same day registration. In North Dakota, he wouldn’t have to register at all.
During the 2008 election, same-day registration produced some promising results in the states where it is the law. On average, voter participation in these states averaged 69 percent, compared to the national average of just 62 percent. Election day registration allowed 1,569,003 Americans to vote on the spot.
After this, there was a lot of congratulations passed around over a surge in voter registration. The reality, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, was that the "surge" was highly concentrated in the 15 so-called battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania.
In the rest of the country, researchers found registration was declining and actually trailed population growth in more than half of the uncontested states. In six of the eight fastest growing states like Arizona and Georgia, registration was declining. Both Connecticut and New York lost voters, with New York declining by more than 200,000.
The US Census found in 2008 that there were 231 million Americans who were eligible to vote, but just 132 million turned out. That’s just 57 percent. Back in 1960, there were 109 million Americans eligible to participate and 69 million did, or just over 63 percent.
If voting was a national test and we scored below 65 percent, what's the grade we deserve?
To get "unstuck," we need a national unity of purpose that still eludes us. We need Ryan and his fellow voteless Americans to have a stake in what America becomes. Without it, the "promise of America" becomes an empty abstraction.
We are in the midst of a major renegotiation of our social contract about just what government is supposed to do, and what people and families must do for themselves. If we are to redefine the age of retirement, for example, it will be Ryan and his peers that live that change. Let's be sure to ask them.