US elections: the Finn teaching Americans how to vote

Midterm elections have a traditionally low turnout, but new initiatives seem to be having an effect to get more people out to vote.

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File picture of voter participation stickers on denim jacket / Credit: iStock

America goes to the polls this week, in midterm elections that have traditionally been seen as an opportunity for voters to pass judgement on the president, and let him know if they think he’s doing a good or bad job.

This year, a Finn is helping teach Americans how to register to vote, and cast their ballots.

On Tuesday 6th November 33 out of America’s 200 Senate seats, all 435 seats in Congress, and governors of 36 states and three US territories are up for grabs.

One of the hallmarks of midterm elections throughout American history has been the low voter turnout, with only about 40% of registered voters actually doing so.

This election year, Joonas Virtanen is trying to fix that, one potential voter at a time.

Working at a creative agency in New York, 28-year old Virtanen is involved with two different voter education projects that are attracting some high profile attention.

The ‘Crush The Midterms‘ campaign is a partisan effort trying to rally people to vote against Republican candidates – “we are pretty unapologetic, we want to vote Trump out” says Virtanen – and the campaign site has been boosted by an endorsement from former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

File picture of Joonas Virtanen at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco / Credit: Joonas Virtanen

The other campaign is called “I Am A Voter” and is backed by Vice media organisation, and has been endorsed and shared on social media by celebrities like Jessica Alba and Khloe Kardashian.

“Most of the electorate is really detached from the whole political process in the US, and in general the turnout is one of the lowest in the developed world” explains Virtanen in an interview with News Now Finland while he waits at Helsinki Airport to board a flight back to New York.

“Even though Khloe Kardashian or basketball player Stephen Curry are so-called coastal elites, they have a lot of followers across the country who are probably not politically connected. So it’s important to get celebrities like them to share the campaign messages, because they speak to the common people. That’s an effective way to get this message across to people who aren’t usually that politically engaged, and who wouldn’t otherwise search for it” he says.

Originally from Klaukkala, Virtanen studied international business at Aalto University, then moved to America for his masters degree. He ended up working at the Purpose Agency in New York as a Design Lead and got involved in creating this year’s voter education campaigns.

“One big reason for low voter turnout is that voters feel apathetic. They feel that they can’t make a difference, that the system is so broken it’s kind of beyond their control, and their vote doesn’t make a difference, and that’s something we’re trying to remind people of” says Virtanen.

“I feel like everything in the States right now is getting so polarized that sometimes people don’t find themselves or their opinions reflected in the candidates. It’s just the extremes that are reflected in the media and the headlines. That’s something I find most challenging compared to the Finnish system” he says.

What the campaigns are trying to do

The “I Am A Voter” website is purposefully lean. You won’t see flashy graphics or campaign slogans.

Visitors can check whether they are registered to vote in their state; set up to receive SMS text messages with election information, or volunteer as part of the public awareness campaign.

There’s advice for employers about how to engage their workers about civic rights; or how to encourage friends to get out and vote as well.

“There was National Voter Registration Day a few weeks ago, and we had a big push with both of our campaigns to get people to vote, and that’s when Jessica Alba and others shared it, and actually for national voter registration day more people than ever registered to vote” says Virtanen.

“Obviously we cannot attribute it all to our campaign as there are tons of people out there doing amazing work to drive the voter registration, but I hope we were able to play a part and to have a positive impact” he adds.

File picture of downtown Houston skyline / Credit: iStock

Voter education across America

The message of voter education and empowerment seems to be having the desired effect.

In Texas, more than 4.5 million people voted early – that’s more than in the state’s whole 2014 midterm election.

“I think what has been turning out the race here in Texas is the Senate race between [Republican] Senator Ted Cruz and [Democrat challenger] Beto O’Rourke. It’s one of the races that has been watched nationwide, and there is a lot on the line” explains Brandi Smith, a reporter at KHOU television station in Houston.

File picture of journalist Brandi Smith / Credit: KHOU

“O’Rourke has gathered endorsements from a lot of Hollywood celebrities. Ellen had him on her show and he has a message that is resonating. It’s a different kind of exposure than Texas has seen for a long time, and the race is very close right now. Just three to five points in it which is huge for a red [Republican] state” she says.

Minority issues have been important topics for voters in the state, especially in Houston which Smith explains is the most diverse large city in America. Those issues have been reflected in the work that journalists are doing around voter education and trying to fact check specific questions.

“Minorities are a huge part of the Senate race. Immigration, immigrant issues, minoritiy issues are huge factors because the two candidates have very different approaches. We profiled minorities, young people voting for the first time, older people voting for the first time. At this election people feel compelled to come out and vote even if they haven’t for a long time” says Smith.

File picture of Boise State Capital building / Credit: iStock

National attention galvanizing voters

Idaho might be at the other end of the country from Texas, but there are a lot of political similarities between the two states. Both are largely Republican strongholds, with pockets of more liberal Democratic cities. And like Texas, Idaho has a high profile race that’s garnered national attention.

But election day is quite different in the Gem State as it’s called, as voters can show up on Tuesday to register and vote all at the same time. It’s one of the few states that allow this.

“Based on early voting, they’re projecting in Ada County [the location of the state capital Boise] close to a 73% turnout in voters, and that’s unheard of. It’s unprecedented” says Gemma Gaudette host of a daily current affairs discussion show called Idaho Matters on the NPR-affiliate public radio station.

File picture of journalist Gemma Gaudette / Credit: Boise State Radio

“I think it’s because in the last two years people have become more engaged, and I think we have some big races in Idaho. We have a gubernatorial race, both of our congressional seats up for election. Two big propositions on the ballots, and we’ve had a lot of grass roots door knocking efforts in Idaho, more than we’ve ever seen and I think that all plays into people being more award” she says.

The state’s governor’s race has Native American candidate Paulette Jordan running on the Democratic ticket. If she wins – which the polls indicate is unlikely – she would be Idaho’s first female governor, and the first Native American state governor anywhere in America. That alone has meant some national media coverage of a race that wouldn’t normally make headlines in New York or Los Angeles.

“It’s very rare for Idaho to get any play when it comes to politics. We are a red [Republican] state. It’s very hard to make any headway at state level as a Democrat. I think because of Paulette Jordan’s story even people who haven’t been very engaged to vote here in Idaho are probably being in touch more. They’re going to see this race in the national news. I think that plays into voter awareness, and I think it engages more people than it normally would” Gaudette explains.

A Finnish perspective on American politics

At Helsinki Airport Joonas Virtanen is getting on a flight to New York just in time for election day.

It’s the culmination of his work making people aware of their voting rights, getting them registered and either voting in advance or showing up at the polling stations on Tuesday.

Politicians and pundits alike are forecasting some shock results, a possible wave of losses for President Trump, and a lot of uncertainty around many issues: except the expectation of higher voter turnout.

“In America everything becoming increasingly polarized due to the combination of the two party system and social media, especially when it comes to complicated issues like for example immigration. In reality, none of these issues are black and white, and the truth is often found in the shades of grey. I wish those shades weren’t so drowned-out in the public discussion” says Virtanen.

“I really like the fact that in Finland we have a bunch of strong parties to choose from, and some other party choices in the mix as well. We should make sure we hold on to that diversity of opinion”.