With the presidential election less than a month away, a panel of three experts tackled the thorny issues of low voter turnout, obstacles to voter participation, efforts to target and disenfranchise ethnic and racial groups, and other election-related topics.

The panel discussion, “The Fight to Vote, The Right to Vote,” took place on Wednesday, October 10 at the Old State House in downtown Hartford and featured Stefanie Chambers, associate professor of political science at Trinity; Secretary of the State Denise Merrill; and Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause, Connecticut. The moderator was Elizabeth McGuire of the Connecticut Network (CT-N), which recorded the discussion and will broadcast it over the coming week.

For a listing of airtimes, please visit: www.ct-n.com.

McGuire opened the discussion by noting that the number of people who turn out to vote could very well be a deciding factor in both the presidential election pitting Democrat Barack Obama against Republican Mitt Romney and Connecticut’s U.S. Senate race between Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon. However, McGuire continued, “we know that a huge number of people in this country just sit it out.”

The nation’s dismal voter participation rate – especially when compared to other democracies – dominated the hour-long conversation. Panelists discussed barriers to voter participation in the United States compared to other democracies, some of which do not require citizens to first register and some have elections on weekends or turn election day into a national holiday. The barrage of negative ads on American TV is also a big turn-off, as are the barriers that keep racial and ethnic minority groups from the polls.

Furthermore, the lack of participation occurs despite decades of inequality that women and minorities endured with regard to voting rights. Chambers, who teaches a course at Trinity on women and politics, gave an overview of the struggle by women for the right to vote, a fight that wasn’t won until the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1920, more than a century after women had begun clamoring for enfranchisement. The framers of the Constitution did not specify which groups were entitled to vote, resulting in various constituencies having to fight “to get a place at the table.”

These historical struggles seem forgotten by many, as in the past few decades less than half of the eligible adults in this country have voted in presidential elections, and even fewer in off-year elections. Merrill, whose job it is to oversee state elections, emphasized the historical context provided by Chambers by describing the voter participation rate as “a crisis in this country. [Voting] is a right that people have fought and died for.”

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