I’m as civic-minded as most people, but I’m really tired of being told to go register and vote. I’m registered. I’ve voted in every presidential election since 1971, and most of the off-year elections too. But I understand the reason — since 2000, over 40% of eligible voters have not voted. Here is some information about how big an issue non-voting is, why individuals don’t vote, and what we might do about it.
Number of Non-voters
Here’s the problem. Over the past five elections, 41% of the electorate has not voted. During that time, the difference between the winning candidate and the losing candidate ranged from 0.3% (Bush in 2000) to 4.4% (Obama in 2008) based on the full electorate. ANY of those elections could have turned out differently if the non-voters did vote. Here is a summary of the votes and non-votes.
In every election, the proportion of non-voters is bigger than either of the proportion of voters who voted Republican or the proportion of voters who voted Democratic. In every election, the proportion of non-voters is much, MUCH bigger than the difference between the winner and the loser of the elections. The differences are shocking, especially when visualized.
Why People Don’t Vote
So why does two-fifths of the electorate not vote? There are systemic reasons and personal reasons.
There are three key reasons why the election process discourages individuals from voting — eligibility requirements, the operation of the polling locations, and intentional and unintentional voter suppression.
In general, an individual has to be a U.S. citizen and at least 18 years old. Some states do not allow felons to vote. Some states do not allow individuals to vote if they are judged by a court to be mentally incapacitated. Some states require individuals to be affiliated with either the Republican or Democratic party in order to vote in primary elections.Voters in Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, North Mariana Islands and Guam are not represented in the electoral college.
36 States request or require voter IDs, 18 states ask for a photo ID and 17 states accept non-photo IDs. This can be an impediment to voting for individuals who are homeless, have no transportation, or can’t get time off from work. Low-income people are also more likely to move, requiring new IDs.
Currently, voting requires registration. An individual must complete paperwork, often in person, demonstrating that they are a U.S. citizen over 18 years old (by election day) and fulfill all other requirements a state may have, As with IDs, this is a hardship for some individuals. 21 States allow same-day registration.
Polling Place Operation
Election Day is traditionally held on Tuesdays. All states allow absentee voting although some require a valid reason. Five states conduct their elections entirely by mail and 17 other states allow mail-in elections in certain situations. 41 States allow in-person early voting although the times when polls are available are different from state to state.
On election day, polls are typically open for at least 12 hours. 20 States operate polls for 12 hours. 21 States operate polls for more than 12 hours, usually by an hour or two. Four states have flexible times which could be less than 12 hours. Five states vote entirely by mail. The number of voters assigned to a polling place is also an issue. Some urban polling places are oversubscribed, resulting in long wait times which discourage potential voters. This is particularly intimidating during the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Since 2010, 25 states have adopted measures specifically aimed at making voting more difficult. Such measures include gerrymandering, additional voter identification requirements, purges of voter rolls, and closing polling places or restricting their hours. Some jurisdictions have also intentionally created confusion about how to register or where and when to vote. Then the ballots themselves may be problematical, like the infamous Palm Beach County FL butterfly ballot or Election Systems & Software (ES&S) sale of hackable voting machines. Sometimes, partisan election fraudsters deliberately spread false information, make deceptive robocalls, engage in voter caging, and play other dirty tricks. These actions confuse and alienate potential voters.
There are as many personal reasons for not voting as there are non-voters, Here are a few common reasons.
Some individuals have physical or logistical reasons for not voting. They may be aged, infirm, or disabled. They may not have transportation to get an ID, or register, or go to the polls. They may have employment responsibilities that prevent them from taking off time to vote. They may have childcare or eldercare responsibilities. They may be away from their voting district because of work or school. They may be homeless. Or, they may have events in their lives that consume all their attention, like a big project at work, a social event that has to be planned, or help that has to be provided to a friend or relative.
Perhaps most people believe that individuals who don’t vote are just apathetic. That may be true for some individuals but for others it’s more complicated, much more.
Some individuals have misconceptions. They believe that registering to vote will make them more likely to be called for jury duty. Some are just angry at the government because they believe it is making their life miserable. Some individuals are, or believe they will be, a target for intimidation. They believe that who they plan to vote for will be criticized by friends, family members, social media, or people at polling places. Some individuals suffer from voter burnout. They see that there are a lot of races, some with many candidates and complex issues. They don’t feel they have the time to learn enough to make informed decisions. They are the opposite of apathetic; they care too much and are afraid of making an inappropriate decision.
Finally, some individuals don’t vote because they believe their vote doesn’t matter. Maybe they don’t support any of the candidates who are likely to be elected. Maybe they are an independent or a member of a third party and believe that the incumbent is safe from defeat. Maybe they believe that their vote won’t be counted because they are voting by mail or were given a provisional ballot. Or, maybe they are frustrated because their vote counts less than the votes of others because of the Electoral College system or other systemic irregularities like gerrymandering. The Washington Post found that voter turnout was better where electoral integrity, derived from 49 metrics involving district boundaries, election management, registration accuracy, vote count process, and media coverage of election news, was high.
Who Doesn’t Vote
It’s hard to tell who doesn’t vote; most people don’t want to admit it. So, survey data on the topic may not adequately capture a representative sample of the population of non-voters. Nonetheless, surveys conducted by the Knight Foundation in 2019 of 12,000 individuals and the Pew Research Center in 2006 of 1,804 individuals suggest the following patterns.
- Sex — There is little difference between male and female propensity to vote. Knight found females were 6% less likely to vote. Pew found no difference.
- Race — About 60% of Hispanics, 52% of Blacks, and 45% of Whites are not likely to vote.
- Age — Younger individuals are less likely to vote. 65% of individuals younger than 30 do not vote. In contrast, only 38% of individuals over 50 don’t vote.
- Church — Individuals who do not attend church are less likely to vote.
- Marriage — Individuals who are not married are less likely to vote.
- Education — Less educated individuals are less likely to vote. A half to two-thirds of individuals without a college degree are less likely to vote compared to two-fifths of individuals with a college degree. Less educated individuals are also less likely to have friends who care about politics or talk about voting.
- Income — Individuals with low incomes are less likely to vote. Over half of individuals with an income under $30k will not vote compared to only a third of individuals with an income over $75k.
- Politics — Independents are less likely to vote than either Republicans or Democrats. Conservatives are slightly less likely to vote than Liberals.
Non-voters have less faith in the electoral system than voters. Non-voters say they don’t vote for many reasons, including not liking the candidates and feeling their vote doesn’t matter. Compared with voters, non-voters have less faith in the electoral system, don’t feel they have enough information, and are less likely to think increased participation in elections is good for the country. They are more likely to think “the system is rigged.”
What We’re doing
For the most part, states are making it harder for people to vote by imposing additional ID requirements and improperly purging voter rolls. In contrast, some states are upgrading voting machines and implementing vote-by-mail. Too often, there is considerable resistance to making systemic changes, often requiring intervention by Courts, so they come slowly.
Voter support for individuals, provided by volunteers and non-profit organizations, is growing. This support includes: arranging language support and transportation; assisting with registration drives; and supplying non-partisan information on candidates and polling places. There is also an increasing amount of fact-checking of political ads and media articles.
What We Might Do
So, what can we do that we’re not already doing to encourage individuals to vote? Consider the following table compiled from the 2019 Knight Foundation survey. (Note: the percentages have been adjusted to exclude the responses “nothing” and I don’t know.”)
The number one response, accounting for over a quarter of the responses, is better candidates. One way to promote that change would be to open the election process to independent parties. Allow them to participate in debates and be on ballots without the exclusionary restrictions we now have. Another way might be to restrict the dominance of the two major parties. Individuals can’t even vote in some state primaries unless they’re registered to one of the two parties. This system allows the two major parties to do whatever they want. These changes would at least give voters a chance to vote for candidates more to their liking. Unfortunately, the changes would be revolutionary, sure to be vehemently opposed by the two parties that now control the government.
Closely associated with a desire for better candidates are responses looking for more meaningfulness. Survey respondents said they would be more likely to vote if they could vote for a particular issue or if they just thought their vote would affect the outcome. These topics account for a fifth of the responses.
Information accounted for a quarter of the responses. Respondents want more information, better information, and more time to understand it. Given the deluge of information that is already available — in print, on television, and on the internet — the issue here may be the validity and digestibility of the information. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation prevented in the media, too much for all the fact-checkers in the world to correct. Furthermore, many of the issues are so complicated that information about them cannot be conveyed effectively enough in a concise presentation. This is a real conundrum. Restoring the Fairness Doctrine would help but it applied only to holders of broadcast licenses. It wouldn’t affect print or Internet media. Truthfulness can’t be legislated, and it’s not always clear what the truth actually is. Again, there would be substantial opposition from the political parties as well as those who control media outlets.
Almost a quarter of the responses involved convenience. Respondents wanted more time and more convenient processes to register and vote, even being able to vote online. Five states conduct their elections exclusively by mail, a growing number of states allow optional voting-by-mail, and all states provide absentee voting. Nationwide voting-by-mail could be a major advance in making voting more convenient, especially if registration could also be accomplished by mail. It could be the precursor to online voting. Unfortunately, this change is strongly opposed by the Republican party which believes it would suffer from the increased voter participation.
It’s incomprehensible that we can shop and bank and complete our taxes online but we can’t vote online.
Finally, a small percentage of respondents indicated that they would be more likely to vote if there were incentives to do so. Some respondents thought that making voting mandatory, as it is in other countries, would convince them to vote. But, that approach would probably be unenforceable. The country can’t even force individuals to wear Covid-19 masks, and that is easier to identify. One way to encourage voting might be to provide some kind of tax incentive. The incentive might also cover other types of behavior the government wants to encourage, like responding to jury summons and answering the census.
So, what might we do to encourage individuals to vote?
First, we could expand vote-by-mail. This strategy would be far more effective than creating a national holiday for voting because it would facilitate voting for those who have to work, like emergency personnel. Vote-by-mail is already growing in many states despite partisan opposition. Because elections are controlled by states, this change will take time to implement. Nevertheless, it would make voting considerably more convenient.
Second, we could develop expert systems so that individuals could answer a few questions on their beliefs and be shown which candidates they might prefer. At least one expert system like this already exist for the 2020 presidential election. This strategy could be expanded to other elections. If publicized effectively, expert systems could be more effective than the traditional candidate debates because they cover more topics, consider more of the candidates’ records, and avoid the theatrics played on live television.
Third, enhance the prosecution of election fraud by prohibiting further engagement in political activities. For example, an individual convicted of participating in political dirty tricks could be prohibited from working on political campaigns for some period of time, instead of or in addition to a prison sentence.
Forth, provide incentives, such as a tax break or things a crack marketing team could come up with like the novelty items passed out at sporting events.
Finally, there are a whole host of changes that could be made if they weren’t so opposed by partisan groups. For example:
- Eliminate the influence of money in politics
- Make it easier for independent parties to participate
- Abolish the Electoral College and base results on the popular vote.
None of these changes would come easily.