Counting Success, Vote by Vote

by Leslie Martes ’02

Leslie Martes ’02I spend a lot of time thinking about how to get someone to open a piece of snail mail and respond. I think about the aesthetic, the design, and convenience. I put together experiments to figure out ways to increase response rates. It is ironic that what I am trying to get others to do is something I did one month before my 18th birthday with ease and excitement: I registered to vote.

After traveling and working across the country in places like Des Moines, Iowa; Raleigh, North Carolina; and a brief 10 days in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I recently moved to Washington, DC, to take a position with a non-profit called the Voter Participation Center, formerly Women’s Voices, Women Vote. We focus on what we call the Rising American Electorate: unmarried women, people of color, and youth. This group is responsible for the majority of the growth in our population, but they don’t make up their fair share of the electorate. It boils down to this: If their voices aren’t represented by their elected officials, the Rising American Electorate won’t have their needs and interests reflected in their government. Our mission is for members of this group to register to vote, and to also turn out to vote in 2012. This isn’t an easy task, so I spent a good amount of time contemplating how to persuade people to recognize the power their vote can have.

Last year, I was asked to meet with some members of the Turkish Parliament. These four men wanted to learn about political campaigns in the United States. Though we communicated through an interpreter, I could see on their faces their astonishment and confusion about how few people vote in our country. They spoke passionately about the huge voter turnout in elections in Turkey and the relative ease with which their citizens vote. They couldn’t understand why, in a country as advanced as ours, people didn’t want to have a say in how our government operates. Lately, I have reflected upon that meeting — why people feel like their vote doesn’t matter, and what I can do to change that perception.

I am excited about the work I do to get people to register to vote and the work I will continue to do for the upcoming election to encourage these voters to go to the polls in the fall. It can be overwhelming to know I am focusing on a group in this country that is made up of more than 46 million unregistered citizens. To say that 2012’s election season seems daunting is a wild understatement. But it helps to think of my former self, the young student on the cusp of college and adulthood, filling out the form that would make me a voter. I won’t be able to register 46 million people by 2012, but every additional registrant means something, and every opened envelope is a small success.

Prior to moving to Washington, DC, in 2010, Leslie Martes served for four years as director of the North Carolina House Democratic Caucus. Her Scripps College classmates chose her to represent them as senior speaker at the 2002 commencement.