Summer 2022 Bulletin

What Does It Mean to be an American? Reexamining the Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship

Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship
people voting

2106th Stated Meeting | April 20, 2022 | Virtual Event
Jonathan F. Fanton Lecture

Amid extreme partisan polarization, trust in government institutions hovers near record lows and many Americans believe that their values are under attack. In this context, what values hold the nation together and what does it mean to be a “good citizen”? The Academy convened a distinguished panel of experts – E.J. Dionne Jr., María Teresa Kumar, John Shattuck, and Danielle Allen as moderator – to examine how the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship are connected and how they might be used to create a greater sense of common purpose. An edited version of the panelists’ remarks follows. 

David W. Oxtoby

David W. Oxtoby is President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was elected to the Academy in 2012.

Good afternoon and welcome. As President, it is my pleasure to formally call to order the 2106th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Our event today is a Jonathan F. Fanton Lecture, named for my predecessor who served as president of the American Academy from 2014 to 2019. Jonathan has joined us virtually to participate in today’s program, and I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge his outstanding stewardship of this institution.

Today’s event stems from initiatives that began during Jonathan’s tenure. In 2018, under his leadership, the American Academy launched a project to explore the pathways and barriers to participation in our democracy and what it means to be a good citizen in the twenty-first century. The work of the Academy’s bipartisan Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship has grown more essential since then as a series of crises has deepened the cracks in our political culture. We are grateful for Jonathan’s prescience in recognizing the need for this effort, and for his continued service as a member of the Commission.

Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, the Commission’s final report, was released in June 2020 and offers thirty-one bold recommendations to help the nation emerge as a more resilient democracy by 2026. We are in the implementation phase of the project, and it has been inspiring to see how many Americans from across the country are committed to improving the health of our democracy. We are grateful to all who have joined us in this impor­tant work.

Today’s conversation on the rights and responsibilities inherent to American citizenship connects directly to the core questions that animated the Commission and led to the Our Common Purpose report. I look forward to exploring together what it means to be a good citizen in the twenty-first century and hope that today’s discussion will help us all practice better citizenship in our own communities.

I want to welcome our panelists: E.J. Dionne Jr., María Teresa Kumar, and John Shattuck. I also want to thank our moderator, Danielle Allen, a cochair of the Commission. Danielle is the model of a scholar patriot, working tirelessly to protect and promote the ideals that underpin our democratic system through her scholarship and, most recently, as a candidate for office in Massachusetts. We are grateful to Danielle for her service and her example.

Danielle Allen

Danielle Allen is Director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics and James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University. She was elected to the American Academy in 2009 and is a cochair of the Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship.

Danielle Allen


Thank you, President Oxtoby. I truly appreciate your kind words and having you preside over this important conversation. It’s wonderful to be here to celebrate Jonathan Fanton’s work and leadership for the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. We have extraordinary panelists joining us today for this question of what does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be a good citizen? The questions sound antique, and yet they are core to our ability to function together in our massive and multicultural, diverse, and beautiful society. What does it mean to be a good citizen and a good civic participant? These roles and modes of engagement are broad.

The work of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship really began because Jonathan Fanton sent up a flare and asked, “Who else out there thinks that we are in a red-alert moment in our democracy?” And for those of us whom he reached out to first, we all had our own moments of red alert. In my own personal case, my sense of the fragility and the failures of our democratic system date back to 2009. Growing up, I had a mixed sense of light and dark about our country: a sense of hope, optimism, and pride in our accomplishments but also a clear-eyed focus on the limitations and failures.

In 2009, I lost my younger cousin Michael to a combination of mass incarceration and gun violence. That was a real turning point for me. It gave me a bleaker view about where we were as a country and what it would take for our democracy to reach a place where we don’t leave people trapped in situations that don’t permit them the well-being and flourishing that our Constitution and democracy promise. My other red alert came in 2013 when Congress had an approval rating of 9 percent. As Jonathan made calls to lots of people, he found red alerts all over the place and all kinds of people who said, “It’s time for us to really dig deep and figure out what a healthy democracy consists of.”

At the end of the day, a democracy can’t be anything other than the people who make it. So, fundamentally, that question about what we need for the health of our democracy is a question about what it means for us to be citizens and civic participants and to do that work together. Fundamental to that are benefits captured in a vocabulary of rights. We earn those benefits by fulfilling a set of responsibilities. Rights and responsibilities: those are the core components of the social contract.

As we come together today to talk about this question, we are dusting off some old categories and some old ideas, but we are doing that because of their urgency in the present. We have a pressing need to figure out a new, reimagined, reinvented democracy. We have a pressing need to answer the question of what rights and responsibilities we have to each other and to the practice of democratic citizenship. We have an incredible group of panelists here today, true leaders of both thought and practice. I will share their bios, and then I will jump in with a single question to each. Then we’ll bring everybody together for a shared conversation.

E.J. Dione Jr. is a journalist for The Washington Post, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a university professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. E.J. works at the intersection of journalism and scholarship with expertise in community and civil society, in elections, politics, polling, faith-based initiatives, ideology, journalism, and the role of religion in public life and public opinion – all at the heart of our current struggles. He is the author of several books, but for today’s conversation, let me note a brand-new book with democracy advocate Miles Rapoport entitled 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting.

I am also pleased to introduce María Teresa Kumar, the founding president of Voto Latino, a civic engagement organization that leverages youth, technology, social platforms, and influencers, and is responsible for registering more than five hundred thousand new voters. María Teresa is also an activist and social entrepreneur, as well as an Emmy-nominated MSNBC contributor. She has been named as one of the top one hundred creative minds by Fast Company, one of the ten most influential Latinos by Hispanic Executive, and one of the ten most influential women in D.C. by Elle.

Last, but not least, I am glad to introduce John Shattuck. John is Professor of Practice in Diplomacy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He is a former Senior Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, and served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. John has also been the Washington director of the American Civil Liberties Union and a U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic. His new book, with coauthors Sushma Raman and Mathias Risse, is titled Holding Together: A Hijacking of Rights in America and How to Reclaim Them for Everyone. John is a master of thinking about rights and responsibilities.

I will kick off our discussion with a question for John. Some years ago, you and I had a conversation about rights and responsibilities. I was very impressed that you were grabbing hold of these two terms that people often want to push off to the side. In your new book Holding Together, you tell a powerful story about an America where we have large bipartisan majorities for some core values. This goes against the grain of our current understanding of ourselves because we take ourselves to be polarized. Can you fill us in on what you found about what Americans think about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?

John Shattuck

John Shattuck is Professor of Practice in Diplomacy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He was elected to the American Academy in 2007.

John Shattuck


Thank you, Danielle. And a salute to you for the many ways you’ve demonstrated your leadership on democracy, including your outstanding academic work, your commitment to public service, and your recent campaign for governor of Massachusetts.

I would like to say a few words about some relevant history in answering your question. The United States is a nation of unprecedented diversity. Unlike other countries, which are built on common ancestry, we are built on successive waves of immigration, and on a legacy of enslavement and the subjugation of Indigenous people.

Over the centuries, Americans have been thrown together by chance and exploitation, but have been held together by a promise reflected in the Declaration of Independence – a promise that all people are created equal and have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have failed to implement the promise of rights in many ways, but most Americans still have a deep belief in it. In that sense, the promise of rights is a core set of values that has been handed down over time.

The founders were an elite slice of the population. They were white men with property who had an exclusive view of rights: basically, rights for white men with property, like themselves. This historic exclusion has been challenged throughout American history. And the great struggle for equal rights, which is the struggle that we’re talking about in our new book – a struggle for the right to vote, for equal protection and equal opportunity, for freedom of speech, religion, individual dignity, due process of law, and, above all, a democratic form of government – this ongoing struggle defines what it is to be an American.

In our book, we wanted to find out what Americans think today about their rights. We conducted a series of national polls and town hall meetings, and collected some remarkable data that frankly surprised us. Eighty percent of people across the political spectrum said that “without our rights, America is nothing.” Now, of course, rights have very different meanings for different people. We certainly know that there can be a conflict between the right not to wear a mask and the right to be protected from COVID, which is a contemporary version of these conflicts. But despite the conflicts, our polls show that 80 percent believe that Americans “have more in common than most people think.”

This is remarkable, because it’s at odds with the division and extremism that we see all around us. Let me give you just a bit more data. A majority of Americans agree that rights must be balanced with responsibilities. Eight out of ten people agree that personal freedom should be balanced against a responsibility to keep people safe in a pandemic. Eight out of ten agree that the police can protect the public from crime while also being held responsible for their own crimes. And seven out of ten agree that the United States should have automatic voter registration or universal voting, as E.J. and his colleagues write in their book, to reinforce the right and responsibility to vote.

So, there is a lot going on here that is counterintuitive given the polarization that we face in the country today. The bottom line – and there’s a lot of polling data in our book to back this up – is most Americans have an expansive view of equal rights and see rights and the responsibilities of citizenship as core values of the nation, values that determine what it is to be an American. This silent majority, which consists of a wide range of citizens – Democrats, Independents, Republicans – disagrees on specific issues but has a common commitment to democratic values.

They have the potential to hold the country together, but their diversity keeps them from being politically cohesive. They are overshadowed by an active minority that is working to polarize people. This minority is made up of a mostly white constituency motivated by fear, an extremist constituency that denies the equal rights of others that they regard as threats to their own racial, cultural, and political identity.

They are attacking American values in the electoral process, where we find an increasing assault on voting rights. Thirty-five new state laws have been adopted by nineteen states over the last year that would weaken, restrict, or put burdens on the right to vote in various ways.

But our polls show that most Americans want to strengthen, not weaken, the right to vote. Eighty-seven percent, including 80 percent of Republicans, favor national standards to protect the electoral process. Eighty-four percent favor the Justice Department reviewing voting regulations to make sure they aren’t racially discriminatory. And 82 percent, including 55 percent of Republicans, favor increased early voting to promote maximum participation.

So, we see a disconnect between the polling, the underlying values that Americans feel they continue to have, and the activities that are going on in a highly polarized political arena. The data that we include in the book show where this disconnect begins.

Allen: Thank you, John. You have given us a picture of hope. Maybe we agree on more than we think we do. You raised some questions about the disconnect between us and what our policies are. We will come back to that disconnect later. Let me now turn to E.J. Dionne.

John just articulated a hope that this big, silent supermajority that he’s saying is out there wishes that their voices could be brought to the surface to lead and guide our politics. You have just published an extraordinary and controversial book, which has the job of trying to make sure everybody’s voice is truly heard in our politics. In 100% Democracy, you argue that voting shouldn’t be something we think of as a right, and it shouldn’t be something that we think of as a moral obligation. It should be an actual legal duty. We should be required to vote, every single one of us, just as we are required to serve for jury duty. Why should we want that? Tell us why we should take this unprecedented step.

E.J. Dionne Jr.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a journalist for The Washington Post, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a university professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. He was elected to the American Academy in 2005.

E.J. Dionne Jr.


I love that way of introducing it. First, let me say it’s a real honor to be with you, Danielle. I admire you for many things, including your writing and scholarship, of course, but I really admire you for jumping into the political fray. Three of our last five presidents – Obama, Bush, and Clinton – had an election race in their lives that didn’t turn out the way they intended, and they became president. You are now fully qualified to become President of the United States. God bless you.

I want to thank the Academy for hosting this session and for their extraordinary report on American democracy that includes a set of reforms that are deeply valuable. Among them is an idea that I want to discuss today, a proposal supported by my coauthor Miles Rapoport, María Teresa, Norm Ornstein, and many others in the democracy and voting rights communities.

Our core argument is that rights and responsibilities reinforce each other. Often when people talk about rights and responsibilities, they seem to think that responsibilities somehow limit or qualify rights. What we argue is that in the case of voting, the best way to defend the right is to assert the legal responsibility of everyone to vote. Let me just parenthetically say that we call it universal voting and not compulsory voting for a very specific reason: nothing in our proposal requires anyone to vote for anyone.

Our proposal is modeled largely after Australia’s system, although there are some two dozen democracies that enacted versions of the idea, and many of them have made it work very well. But Australia is really the ultimate proof of concept. They’ve had it for one hundred years, and if one hundred years isn’t a good enough proof of concept, I don’t know if we’ll ever get one. Under our system and Australia’s system, you are required to participate but not to pick a candidate. If you don’t like anybody on the list, you don’t have to vote for them. You can write in any name, say Danielle Allen, or María Teresa, or John Shattuck. And just to make sure that this requirement cannot be viewed as compelled speech, we would add a “none of the above” option to the ballot, which exists now in Nevada and Arizona.

The core idea here is that American elections have become like fancy dinner parties: you have an A-list of likely voters, a B-list of people who are registered but don’t vote that often, and a C-list of people who haven’t been able to register. By the way, this last category includes large numbers of young people because our voting system is very unfriendly to the young who move around a lot more than older people do. The dinner party approach to elections means that politicians spend almost all their time appealing to the A-list, the likely voters, which means they spend a lot of time trying to turn out their base. As my friend Miles likes to say, that often means “campaigns based on enrage to engage,” just to pull people out.

But they also spend a lot of time trying to depress the other side’s base, sometimes by erecting legal barriers but often through attacks discouraging partisans from supporting their own side’s candidate. This leads to campaigns that are needlessly divisive. Now, Miles and I do not pretend our idea will fix everything that ails the system, nor do we think political campaigns will all be peaceable kingdoms. Candidates will go after each other. But we believe the dinner party system aggravates divisiveness and aggravates the tendency to be negative.

This system might produce a somewhat more moderate electorate, since many who don’t vote are less ideological than those who do. This seems to be what it does in Australia.

There is a larger point, captured by our Declaration of Independence, in which the founders declared that a legitimate government depends upon the consent of the governed. They didn’t say the consent of two-thirds of the governed, which was our turnout rate in the 2020 election. They didn’t say 50 percent of the governed, which is what we got in what was in historical terms the high turnout midterm election in 2018. They said, “the governed.” That means all of us.

But the other side of this is that at a time when there are active efforts to make it harder to vote, making voting a duty sends a signal to every part of the political system that the obligation of that system is to make it as easy as possible for people to carry out their duty. We argue that we would need a variety of what we call “gateway reforms” to make sure it’s easy for everyone to vote. One of my great research assistants, Amber Herrle, was looking at all the ways in which Australia makes it easy for people to register to vote. And she came running into my office and said, “Look at all this cool stuff Australia does to make participation easier. We should do this, too.”

As it is, we’re becoming two Americas on voting. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that twenty-five states have expanded access since 2020, but nineteen states have pulled back access. We want to be one America, indivisible and fully participating.

I’ll close by mentioning jury duty, because that’s another area in which rights and responsibilities reinforce each other. One of the greatest victories of the civil rights movement was to end discrimination against Black Americans in jury service and to allow Black Americans to serve on juries. But remember what that victory really meant. Charles Ogletree, a great scholar at Harvard and a civil rights activist, has pointed this out. It meant that Black Americans, like white Americans, would be compelled to serve on juries. That is a form of compulsion that increases freedom, increases fairness, increases the justice of our system, because everyone is included. And we think everybody should be included in our election process too.

Allen: Thank you, E.J., and thank you for mentioning that Our Common Purpose includes an endorsement of universal voting as one of its recommendations. The report has thirty-one recommendations for securing the health of our democracy and reinventing the practice of democratic citizenship.

We will come back to this question of why, when we have this supermajority with a commitment to voting, and we have a mechanism to include everybody’s voice and achieve universal voting, aren’t we there yet? What are the obstacles? I would like now to invite María Teresa to join us and to share her perspective on this question. You are an advocate for voting rights. You have increased people’s participation in voting. You have deep knowledge and expertise of the experience of Latinx communities, both in facing hurdles to voting and finding ways to overcome those hurdles.

When does it help for us to talk about voting as a responsibility and as a duty? Is that a useful thing? And what do you think about the prospect of going all the way to a mandate for voting to make it truly universal?

María Teresa Kumar

María Teresa Kumar is President of Voto Latino and an MSNBC contributor.

María Teresa Kumar


There is an assault on our democracy and on our institutions. Danielle, you did one of the bravest things: you put your hat in the ring. Remember it’s not just about running; it’s about finding great candidates because that’s how we change the equation.

I joined E.J. and Miles Rapoport in the Universal Voting Taskforce, and through that journey, I was sold on the idea of universal voting. Our biggest challenge is making sure that people of color, and poor people in general, are not penalized for not voting. John, thank you for the conversation, but more importantly, for being brave enough to have it at a time when people are polarized. I would say that there are a few of us who are polarized and a lot of us who are a silent majority. And oftentimes, the person who screams the loudest is the one who gets amplified.

I would like to clarify something about our work at Voto Latino. We actually registered 1.2 million voters in this last election, according to a report by Tufts University, in which the movement’s work, not just Voto Latino’s, is audited. Of the voters we registered, 56 percent were first-time voters, and, equally as important, 57 percent had less than a college education. This is hard work. We got people, who are often apathetic to government, excited. Officially, we are the largest online direct voter registration outfit in the country. And we’re the second largest voter registration organization in the country, second only to the Voter Participation Center. I say this only because it’s taken eighteen years of a longtime experiment to convince people that if we target young Latinos, talk to them, and tell them that they belong in this space, they listen.

One of the things that we have found is that when we talk directly to individuals in the Latinx community, and especially young voters, and create a space where they can ask questions, where we can tell them that you don’t need a degree, that this democracy is theirs, they start paying attention and participating. We are living at a time when the government that they are trying to participate in doesn’t look like them. So how do we change that equation? We do it by voting and running for office.

I’ve been doing a lot of reporting recently on what’s happening in Ukraine, and one of the things I found most fascinating was that the parliamentarians who were talking on MSNBC and CNN, each one seemed younger than the next. I finally asked the question, “What is the average age of a Ukrainian parliamentarian, not including the president?” It turns out that it is forty-six. These individuals are representing a rising generation in Ukraine.

This idea of universal voting brings the largest and most diverse group of Americans, Generation Z, into the fold. We are starting to see what that means when they run for office and when they participate. They are talking about intersectional issues that make older folks uncomfortable, but that is their lived experience, and it is allowing us to make monumental change. I often say that I don’t have to convince a young person that climate change is real. I just have to convince them that the system works if they elect officials who reflect their values.

And so, universal voting is an opportunity for us to convince people about participation. I’m very proud of the 1.2 million people that Voto Latino has registered, but to be honest, Voto Latino should not be in the business of registering voters. That’s a government function. Our charge should be convincing people about the policies that will make their lives different.

In 2004, when we first started, our job was just to register voters. Then, after the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, we had to explain to people how they could make their vote count. And now, with the onslaught of over four hundred pieces of legislation trying to prevent people from voting, we have to sue the states. We’re suing the State of Texas. We’ve sued the State of Florida, the State of Arizona, and the State of Colorado. That should not be our charge. But because there is a group of individuals trying to repress the vote, we would not be doing our function in advocating for democracy and for our voters if we were not in the fight.

I am sold on universal voting because it brings everybody in, and we can get back to a place of negotiating for the best policy possible. That takes patience and time, but it allows us to address the fundamental issues that we’re facing in this country.

Allen: Thank you. You put a lot of rich material on the table for our conversation. I would like to invite E.J. and John back to join us. Let’s pick up the conversation about universal voting and about the hard problem of polarization.

I’m with you on universal voting. It’s a beautiful idea, and I can see all the incredible virtues: no more money spent on keeping other people’s voters from voting; we reduce the negative advertising; we turn voting into a holiday; we become like Australia and embrace all these ease of access measures for participation. But there is something else that is gnawing at me, which María Teresa alluded to. Currently, turnout is the lowest for communities of color, and communities of color are the most overburdened by too many laws and too much enforcement. So, are we going to add another law and increase the number of fines and fees that communities of color find themselves fighting their way through?

I know that you have all thought about this question. We would like to hear what answers you arrived at as a part of your taskforce work. María Teresa, I’ll start with you.

Kumar: I would like to remind everybody that fifty states certified a fair and free election, and that’s when they decided they were going to add more restrictions. One of the things that I took umbrage with was when people were saying, “Can you believe they can’t pass water out to people waiting in line?” And I’m thinking that’s the wrong question. Why are people waiting in line? By creating a space for universal voting, you put the onus of how to run an effective, efficient election back into the hands of secretaries of state and local election officials. Their charge becomes, “We need to create efficient voting so that everybody can vote.”

The other thing that E.J. highlighted, which is equally important, is that we’re not forcing you to vote for someone. We’re asking you to show up, ideally on a holiday, so you can register your grievance or your support. From years of research at Voto Latino, we found that there are two reasons why young Latinos, and Latinos in general, don’t register and don’t vote. One, no one is asking them. And two, they don’t feel that they are smart enough on the issues. With universal voting, it allows for conversations like, “Well, I know I have to vote. What do I need to know to do that?”

One of the things we do at Voto Latino is provide people with crib sheets because we recognize that our communities are overburdened, overworked, and overtaxed. We ask them to tell us what they care about, and then we work with Ballot Ready, a nonpartisan organization, to produce the crib sheets that help them navigate the voting process. Just like everybody has to file their taxes – and the government makes sure that you file your taxes – there are ways to do the exact same thing for voting.

Allen: That’s a metaphor I would not recommend using for universal voting!

Kumar: But it’s efficient. The government has the capacity to do these things. Why not when it comes to modernizing our electoral systems?

Allen: I appreciate the argument you’re making. I just want to underscore one important point. You are making the case that a universal duty is an invitation to every single person, and that’s powerful and very compelling. We currently do not have a system that formally invites everybody to participate.

Dionne: Whenever Richard Nixon was asked a question that he didn’t want to answer, he would say, “I’m glad you asked that question.” In this case, I really am glad you asked that question because it is an issue Miles and I and members of our working group on universal voting struggled with. We met with several civil rights groups in the course of studying the idea, and it’s worth noting that the NAACP is among the civil rights groups that have endorsed this idea, precisely because they see it as tearing down barriers and inviting everybody in. But we were concerned with what has come to be called the “Ferguson problem,” when low-income people, particularly low-income people of color, end up having penalties and fines piled on top of them, and then those fines become criminalized.

We want our system to have nothing to do with that. It should be seen as more a nudge than a shove or a hammer. In Australia’s system, the fine for not voting is $20 Australian, which is about $15 American. If you don’t vote, you receive a notice in the mail asking why you were not able to cast a ballot. If you give any sort of reasonable excuse, they don’t fine you. Only about 13 percent of Australians have to pay the fine. The system we imagine would work in the same way. But we make very clear that this fine is not criminal, it can’t be compounded, and no interest accrues. It’s $20, period. And if you didn’t want to pay it, you can do an hour of community service instead.

We also talk about incentives to vote. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley is very interested in the idea of creating a tax credit for everybody who registers to vote: say, $100 or $50. It would be refundable so it would go to everyone, even those who did not pay income taxes. To avoid running afoul of antibribery laws, laws against vote-buying, you would get a tax credit to register, not to vote. So, you could imagine that with the tax credit, the actual fine for not voting would involve returning $20 of the $50 you received for registering, which further reduces the danger of penalizing those with low incomes. We want a system that doesn’t aggravate existing problems. I think a well-designed system could do that.

Allen: I appreciate that. I’ll throw out one more idea. If indeed the onus is on our government institutions to ensure universal participation, then let’s fine the secretaries of state. Let’s fine the parties and the institutions of state government that should have the job of turning everybody out.

Dionne: I agree that the obligation to register people to vote is a state obligation. Ninety-six percent of people in Australia are registered, and so you need a good system to make that happen. By the way, we may be the only country in the world that has a partisan system of running elections, which is an odd idea by international democratic standards.

Shattuck: I’m going to be the civil liberties contrarian here because I think it’s important that somebody present this point of view. Mandating that you exercise the right to vote is oxymoronic in many ways. A mandate is not a right. There are many things that need to be done to protect and promote the right to vote, above all automatic registration, which is very popular. Approximately 75 percent of the people we polled are interested in that, and another 82 percent are interested in national standards for voting to ensure that there is voting integrity. But I suspect if the question were, “Do you believe in mandatory voting?” the numbers would go down significantly.

My civil liberties objection is partly a matter of principle. There is a concern that if you’re requiring something that is a constitutional right to do or not do, then that is problematic from a constitutional standpoint. But from a practical political standpoint, you also don’t want to give arguments to the opponents of expansive voting rights who are saying that the whole electoral apparatus is essentially a giant government program that is burdening the American people, because that is one of the causes of polarization in the country today.

Having said all of that, I’m in favor of the most expansive view of the right to vote, though I would oppose making it a mandate.

Dionne: Two quick points. One, our polling shows that right now, only about a quarter of Americans support our idea. So, we have a way to go. On the other hand, 61 percent of Americans, equal in both parties, believe that voting is a right and a duty. So, I would ask John, should we abolish the requirement that people serve on juries if they are called? Is the obligation to serve on a jury a violation of your civil liberties?

Shattuck: I would distinguish jury duty from voting. Voting is a constitutional right. Serving on a jury is an obligation of citizenship that the country decided can be imposed on citizens.

Dionne: We could go back and forth on this. I just want to emphasize that I really think they are equivalent. The obligation to serve on a jury, as Ogletree and others have written, undergirds the right to a fair trial. No universal jury service, no fair trial. We think that the obligation to help shape the future of your country in an election is a civic duty that is as important as serving on a jury. And if you make voting as convenient as it should be, allowing people to vote by mail, it’s far less of a burden.

This demand, with the tiniest of fines that are easily waved, makes perfect sense for what is also a fundamental duty of citizenship.

Allen: I am going to jump in here and pull us in the direction of another question that you’ve each put on the table. John, coming back to your original argument, you gave us a picture of a supermajority of Americans who are strongly committed to a right to vote. It’s a little unclear whether that’s mandatory universal voting. But nonetheless, there is a strong, powerful commitment. And yet we have, in your account, a minority driving polarization and division.

Several of you have referenced the challenge of polarization as an obstacle to achieving change. I’m glad to have you each share your thoughts about polarization and what it really does tell us about where we are in our politics right now.

Shattuck: I will put three or four things out as bullet points, and then others can take them apart or amplify them. Why polarization? What is going on? Where did it come from? To be provocative, I think it is coming primarily from an extremist political position. It is a very dangerous wing of our electorate that is determined to divide people and deny others their rights because they are seen by the extremists as a threat.

The second point is the spread of disinformation. It’s extremely easy to propagate all kinds of disinformation through social media and the digital world. We’ve just gone through the big lie and the spurious claim of election fraud, which was unanimously rejected by scores of judges across the country and virtually all nonpartisan voting officials, but which led to the violent insurrection at the Capitol. That’s an example of the type of polarization that develops when this kind of fraud is put forward in such a broad way.

The third point concerns the politics of grievance, which are practiced primarily by the extremist minority that I’m talking about. When President Trump attacked the press as enemies of the people, that essentially put an open season on the media for a lot of people who were listening to him. I also think there are structural issues, such as party primaries that promote extremism, primaries that punish moderates because they’re seen as not being extreme enough, and the winner-take-all election system that we have that essentially freezes a lot of voters out of the results.

These are some of the factors that I think have contributed to polarization.

Dionne: I would offer two points. First, polarization is, in part, the product of partisanship overlapping much more tightly with our various other identities than it used to. Party identification overlaps more than ever with race, with religion, with the type of community you live in, for example, metro versus small town/rural. And from the data, we find that we are more likely to live near people who agree with us because of these overlapping identities.

There is a name for this mysterious group that John described. And that name is the right wing of the Republican Party. Right now, polarization is asymmetric. The Republican Party as a whole has moved much more to the right of center than the Democratic Party has moved to the left of center.

Now, this doesn’t mean that all Republicans are extremists. If you look at the nominees of the Republican Party in 2008 and 2012, John McCain and Mitt Romney, they were mainstream people. In John’s excellent book with Sushma and Mathias, you find a slew of issues in which people who call themselves Republicans agree with people who call themselves Democrats. But, in practice, Republican primaries are now dominated by voters much farther to the right and dominated by issues that have little to do with the problems John, Sushma, and Mathias polled on.

I think having a functional center-right party again is an essential building block to healing our polarization. That doesn’t mean I vote for them or agree with them. I’m more on the progressive side of politics. But I have a lot of respect for center-right people who believe in democracy, fair elections, and access to the ballot. I wouldn’t fear their election. But I am genuinely worried and afraid about this right wing in the Republican Party that is too powerful now.

Allen: María Teresa, you were talking earlier before we began the webinar about the disconnect between parties and the people. We’d love to have you expand on that and tell us why it is an impor­tant distinction.

Kumar: Both John and E.J. hit the nail on the head: there is an extremism within the party. When you do polls on voting, for example, and you ask individuals – Republicans, Democrats, and Independents – whether they believe that everyone should have access to the voting booth, overwhelmingly they say yes.

It is one of the few issues that cut through party lines. And that gives me pause. It leads us to ask, “Well, then, who are the culprits?” There was a recent study that paid individuals who normally watch Fox News between $10 and $15 to watch CNN instead, and then they were polled to see if they changed their minds on any of the issues. What they found was that exposure to more analytical media caused these individuals to change their minds and to have a different worldview.

Sadly, once the money was exhausted, those individuals went back to watching Fox News. It is an example of what media is doing to help polarize and reinforce terrible ideas of who our fellow Americans are. I would argue that one of the reasons we are in this state of polarization has everything to do with a growing multicultural America, and that instead of talking about using our multiculturalism as an asset, it’s being used to drive racism in the country.

I say this because Shelby County experienced a 90 percent increase in its Latino population in 2010. For the second decade in a row, American-born Latinos accounted for 52 percent of America’s population growth. Yet, three months after the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, twenty-two jurisdictions lifted their efforts to protect the vote.

The difference between 2010 and 2020 is that in 2010, most of those Latinos were under the age of eighteen, but in 2020, they were eligible to vote. And so, when we’re talking about birtherism, when we’re talking about the big lie, when we’re talking about these meaty issues that challenge our democracy, all of them lead to a multicultural America that’s vastly different from the people right now who are occupying most elected offices.

What encourages me is that in 2020, we had the most Americans who had ever participated in an election. And the multicultural America – the Black, white, Asian, African American, gay, and straight – that voted in favor of democracy and against an autocratic government was the one that won. What gives me encouragement is that there are so many millions of us who are turning eighteen that we need to make sure that we’re preparing them so that they, too, can participate. By the 2022 midterms, we’re expecting an additional six million more young voters who are going to be eligible to vote, and two-thirds of them are young people of color. How do we make sure that they see themselves in this democracy?

poll volunteers

Allen: I’m going to bring in some questions from the Q&A. First, I want to note a suggestion in the chat from Donna Shalala, who says that if the goal is universal participation, maybe lowering the voting age to sixteen should be on the table. If we wave a magic wand and have universal voting with everybody participating, what else do we need in our civic infrastructure so that voting can be a productive, healthy process and experience? María Teresa, let me invite you to weigh in first.

Kumar: California is my home state. When we first started Voto Latino, we did a lot of work in California. Secretary Alex Padilla, a good friend, allowed sixteen-year-olds to preregister so now Voto Latino doesn’t need to run a program at scale any longer. Our work today is encouraging people to turn out. I think oftentimes we fail to realize that there is modernization taking place at the state level. How do we make sure that it is translated to the federal level, so that everybody gets to reap those benefits?

I think it requires also a deeper analysis of what are the systems that are preventing people from participating. We need a better understanding of what those metrics are. At the same time, the states are doing an excellent job and we don’t necessarily need to look outside our borders for all the solutions. Some quite dynamic things are happening right here at home.

Allen: That’s another interesting thought: universal preregistration of sixteen-year-olds might be the most efficient steppingstone to universal voting. E.J., do you have thoughts on the issues around information, media ecosystems, voter education, and the like?

Dionne: In our book, Miles and I very much support preregistration and we’d love to link it to expanded civic education in the schools. Our kids took the AP government class. It’s a great class that could easily be generalized to the entire population. And I’ve noticed, though this is purely anecdotal, and maybe there is some self-selection here, that a lot of the students who took that class seem to stay engaged in politics.

We have all kinds of reasons to want to abolish the Electoral College. One of them is to make everybody’s vote matter. If you live in Massachusetts, or Utah, or Idaho, or Vermont, you might well make a calculation that your vote will not affect the presidential election and you might choose not to vote. Population movements will make both the Senate and the Electoral College increasingly unrepresentative. Roughly 70 percent of us are expected to live in fifteen states by 2040 – meaning that 70 percent of the population will have representation of just 30 percent of the Senate. That’s also going to wreak havoc with the Electoral College.

Finally, I encourage everyone to look at my Washington Post colleague Margaret Sullivan’s great book on the decline of local media, particularly local newspapers. There are all kinds of reasons to worry about the media and Fox News. I am worried about the decline of local media. It’s far easier for national newspapers to turn a profit on the basis of subscriptions because their subscription base is national and international. But a great many fine local papers are either going out of business, or confronting large cutbacks in the number of reporters they can hire. Local papers help build community. Local papers help keep state and local politicians accountable and all kinds of other local institutions accountable.

I think that foundations, changes in the tax law, and other measures can strengthen local media. Because if we lose our local media, our democracy is in big trouble.

Allen: Let me take that as an opportunity to plug the Our Common Purpose report again. We have recommendations that are about supporting regrowth of local journalism, and some good ideas for how to work on that. The report also has a response on the Electoral College question, although it’s a different one: it’s the alternative solution of increasing the size of the House and getting back to a place where the size of the House and the allocations of representatives change over time, as demographic patterns change.

I’m going to close with one last question for all of you from one of our participants. “I am afraid for the 2024 election. What should a concerned citizen be doing proactively to try to optimize a good democratic experience, neutralizing the poison that our elections do not work?” Let me ask all of you, what can a concerned citizen proactively do to try to make sure that the people around them have a good democratic experience so that we can have confidence in our elections?

Shattuck: That is an important question, and there’s no one answer. I think, above all, the things that we’re talking about here are what citizens can do. They can vote, and they may even, if E.J. and Miles are successful, be mandated to vote, although I want them to vote no matter what. In addition, they need to get more information. I think there are various ways in which citizens can participate now in pushing for more information. For example, there is an effort underway to understand better how the disinformation that comes out of social media gets promulgated so widely. And the very specific effort there, which is supported in our polls, is to require that social media platforms provide their algorithms for general inspection, so we understand how it is that people are getting targeted, and how information is getting out there in a much broader way. It’s complicated, but there is an appropriate social media regulation movement in which people can participate.

There are also various other kinds of reforms that people can throw themselves behind. One is to develop what we call ranked-choice voting, which we haven’t mentioned yet in this conversation. Ranked-choice voting is a way to get more moderate candidates by having a series of choices so you can rank the candidates that you’re voting for. It’s been adopted by a number of jurisdictions, particularly at the local and city level, but also in some states, like Maine and Alaska.

Above all, I think what a concerned citizen can do is research the issues that are of interest to them and learn more. There’s a great deal of information that can be obtained, but you need to know that this information is widely accessible. I think the problem is that there isn’t sufficient civic education right now, which E.J. and María Teresa have touched on.

Dionne: I agree that ranked-choice voting would be good for a great many reasons. Australia does it in conjunction with universal voting.

Second, we don’t have enough polling places, we don’t have enough election workers, and we don’t finance our elections properly. Long lines, as one election lawyer put it, are voter suppression in action.

Next, we need to make sure that the people who run elections – secretaries of state in states that have them or local voting boards – want an honest count. Then, we need volunteers to work the polls. My sister is head of the Board of Canvassers in her town. She has gone into the high schools to recruit a whole new generation of poll workers. And finally, we need to help people who face voter suppression measures to get around them, whether it’s voter ID laws or other measures aimed at making it harder for them to vote.

Kumar: I want to remind everybody that our job is to rinse and repeat 2020. Had we had this conversation in November of last year, I would have been less optimistic, but the good news is that a lot of the congressional maps that we feared were going to be heavily gerrymandered have been thrown into the courts and the courts have washed them. They’ve said, “No, you cannot gerrymander communities of color like you intended to.” So, most of our maps are safe. That’s not to say that Texas is out of the woods yet. Full disclosure: Voto Latino is suing the State of Texas, but so is the DOJ. And the same for Arizona.

But for the most part, we want to make sure that even though it’s a midterm election, we want the same level of enthusiasm that we saw in 2018. That means what you can do as an ordinary citizen is volunteer to be a poll worker. And make sure your friends and family are going to participate, because again, it is rinse and repeat.

Allen: I want to thank our panel, which has fully embraced the responsibility to make sure everybody has access to their right to vote. We are grateful to you for your leadership example.

Oxtoby: This has been a wonderful program. I would like to thank E.J., María Teresa, John, and Danielle for your time and your insights today, and for all that you are doing and have done in service to our democracy. This concludes the 2106th Stated Meeting of the American Academy.

© 2022 by Danielle Allen, John Shattuck, E.J. Dionne Jr., and María Teresa Kumar, respectively

The presentation is online on the event page on the Academy's website.

Our Common Purpose report cover


The Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship explores the factors that encourage and discourage people from being engaged in their communities. The Commission’s final report, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, seeks to improve democratic engagement in the United States with a set of thirty-one bold recommendations that reach across political institutions, civic culture, and civil society to revitalize American democracy by increasing representation, empowering voters, making institutions more responsive, and reinvigorating our civic culture.