The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
2016 has been an exhausting presidential election cycle to watch in part because there has been so much racial hostility. So I welcomed the respite offered by watching the Olympics – a time to be patriotic without all of the political baggage.
Watching the Team USA has been very uplifting. As always, the Olympians are inspiring not just because of their incredible physical prowess (how do they run that fast, jump so high or flip that many times?), but also because of their dogged work ethic. And it doesn’t hurt that their hard work was recognized on the medal stands again and again.
Of course the Olympians skew younger that the general population with birth years ranging from 2000 (for the 16-year-olds) to 1963 (for a 53-year-old equestrian). It’s also an educated group. According to the NCAA, 80 percent of the Team USA competed in college sports.
Another factor that seems remarkable is the incredible diversity represented in Team USA. The 2016 American team includes the first individual gold medal for an African American woman in swimming, a bronze in fencing went to the first Muslim American woman to wear a hijab during competition, the “Final Five” women’s gymnastic powerhouse team who won gold was comprised of two African Americans, two whites, and a Latina. And don’t even get me started on the feats of Michael Phelps. In the 555-athlete delegation from the United States there are slightly more women (52 percent) compared to men. They hail from 47 of the 50 states. And there is racial representation on Team USA from whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos/as and Native Americans.
As a general matter, the Olympians look a lot like the American electorate which is also increasingly diverse. How diverse is the American electorate? The good folks over at Pew have been tracking this for years: and in February they reported that 2016 will have the most diverse electorate in American history.
Pew’s breakdown of the electorate is roughly: 69 percent white, 12 black, 12 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian. This counts all U.S. citizens who are 18 years or older. The biggest growth in eligible voters from 2012 to 2016 has been among Hispanics which jumped 17 percent in four years. The growth is attributable to significant numbers of young Hispanics turning 18 in the intervening years. Meanwhile eligible white votes only grew 2 percent—mostly because more white voters have died comparatively during the past four years without new 18-year-olds to replace them. And this democratic wave of an increasingly racial diverse electorate are likely to continue for years to come as the U.S.-born Hispanic population is a young one.
But is demography destiny? The Cook Political Report argues it is not. Just because there are eligible citizens of voting age from diverse backgrounds does not mean that they will become voters. First of all, they need to register, and second, they need to motivate themselves to get to the polls (or send in their ballot, as their state law allows). In lots of states, voters need to register 30 days before the general to vote in that election. As I write, we are roughly 80 days from the election, which means time is running out for 18-year-olds and other new voters to register if they want to vote in November.
This is why the new automatic voter registration laws are so important. As I discuss in my new book Corporate Citizen?, the past few years that have been marred with states embracing laws and rules that disempower voters. However, bucking that negative trend, is automatic voter registration, one of the great developments in state election law in the past few years.
As the Brennan Center shows in this user-friendly map, five states (California, Oregon, West Virginia, Vermont and Connecticut) have adopted automatic voter registration in the last 18 months. Illinois’s Governor just vetoed a bill that would have made that total six. The basic structure of these laws is to automatically register eligible voters, while allowing individuals to unregister if they so choose. This is the opposite of how election laws in most states work where eligible voters are unregistered unless and until they opt in to registration. These automatic voter registration laws can be a bridge between the potential and the promise of a racially and ethnically inclusive democracy.
As Rev. Jesse Jackson said of our national pastime, “we didn’t know how good baseball could be until we let everyone play.” The Rio Olympics has proven that this is true of so many sports. I didn’t know how outstanding gymnastics could be until I saw Simone Biles do the move named after her “the Biles.” This diversity of Team USA is inspiring, but what would be even better for democracy is if we welcome all of our diverse citizens to participate fully.