President Obama: Well, I’m not saying I’m willing to do it; I’m saying we’re doing it.
Evan Smith: You’re doing it now — yes, sir.
President Obama: It is currently happening. And the opportunities are there. But I want to focus on the fact that there are different ways for people here to get engaged. It’s not just you coming in — although we want to create a pipeline where there’s a continuous flow of talent that is helping to shape the government. The other thing that we’re doing, though, is we’re also convening people to solve problems, and they may in their existing roles be able to work together to make a huge difference.
I’ll give you a specific example. Before I came in here, I met with an incredible group of people — entrepreneurs, moviemakers, organizers, tech leaders — to talk about how we make a real difference on countering violent extremism. It’s not enough if we’re going to defeat ISIL just to take out their leadership or to control certain territories, if, in the virtual world, they are consistently reaching kids here in the United States or elsewhere in the world and recruiting them and twisting their minds to do terrible things. We’ve got to be able to penetrate that.
For good reasons, we don’t want the government to be the lead on that. First of all, we’re not credible with the people who might be receiving those messages. Second of all, it’s dangerous if the government gets in the business of propaganda. So what I said to them was we’ll help convene and put you guys in a room together. Where there are resources that are necessary, we can help provide it. But, essentially, you figure out how we can reach young people who might be vulnerable to extremist messages. You tell us, based on the analytics and the data and the algorithms that you’re working with on a day-to-day basis to sell products, what is it that’s going to really penetrate here. How can we amplify powerful stories that are already taking place so that there are platforms that can reach as many people as possible?
Evan Smith: So whether you solve the problem or they solve the problem, it’s all good?
President Obama: Exactly. I’ll give you a second example, and that is the issue of voting — I mentioned this earlier. We’re the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote. No, I hear laughing, but it’s sad. We take enormous pride in the fact that we are the world’s oldest continuous democracy, and yet we systematically put up barriers and make it as hard as possible for our citizens to vote. And it is much easier to order pizza or a trip than it is for you to exercise the single most important task in a democracy, and that is for you to select who is going to represent you in government.
Now, I think it’s important for a group like this, as we come up to an election, regardless of your party affiliation, to think about how do we redesign our systems so that we don’t have 50% or 55% voter participation on presidential elections, and during off-year congressional elections, you’ve got 39% or 40% vote.
Evan Smith: Mr. President, you’re in the state with the worst voter turnout in the country over the last few years.
President Obama: By coincidence.
Evan Smith: We would take 55% tomorrow if we could get it.
President Obama: There is a reason I’m bringing this up. But it’s not just Texas. And so one of the things that we’re doing is engaging folks who are already doing interesting work in the online space, how can we create safe, secure, smart systems for people to be able to vote much easier online, and what are the technologies to help people get aware of what they’re voting about, who they’re voting for. That’s, again, an issue where you don’t want the federal government engineering all that. But what we can do is to have the incredible talent that’s represented in this auditorium really spend time thinking about that and getting to work on it.
Evan Smith: But governments — Mr. President, governments need to play a role in it. They have to pass legislation that enables some of these things.
President Obama: Yes.
Evan Smith: So in Texas, again, a state with terrible voter turnout every time, we broke records on primary day but we still had the second worst voting age participation of any state that’s voted so far. We can’t get out of our own way. You need, in Texas, legislation that enables this. We won’t even allow people to register to vote — register to vote, not vote — register online in Texas — register online. We can pay our taxes, we can hold our phone up at the supermarket to pay with our credit card, but somehow online voter registration is perceived to be insecure or same-day registration.
President Obama: It’s not insecure. It’s done because the folks who are currently governing the good state of Texas — aren’t interested in having more people participate. So obviously you’ve got to make a political argument about why this is important, and not every state is going to move along the same direction. But I will tell you that if we can create more and more models that show that if made easier, more people vote, and that it is seamless and that it is secure, and jurisdictions that are willing to adopt and support these new mechanisms are in place. And if we are building more models of civic engagement and using the tools and technology that we’re using to buy things to participate in self-governance, then over time — look, Texas is never going to be an early adapter of what I’m talking about here. But over time, pressure builds for us to create systems that make government more responsive and make it work better.