Why Are Half of Americans not Voting?

The United States has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the developed world. However, when you talk to the two dominant political tribes, they hardly ask why. Incidentally, I am referring to parties as tribes because they behave as such.

Democrats have a deep disdain for non voters (and those who vote for Republicans). While their counterparts would prefer the voter turnout universe remained stable or was lower, the reason why will be clear bellow. Or that it attracted voters that agree with them. Some Democrats that are closer to them ideologically would be fine.

The two tribes are also convinced that all they need to win is to get the other side to vote for them. If they did that, ultimate final victory over the other tribe would be achieved. They also have different views about politics and policy, at times in dramatic fashion, of whom should be allowed to vote. There are a few myths circulating that make this a toxic brew. Among them the number of mythical illegal voters.

Politics in the United States is tribalistic. Democrats want to attract some Republicans to their cause. And Tribal Republicans want to do the same with their counterparts. However, Democrats see it in their interest to expand the universe of potential voters, while Republicans do not. Especially if that universe happens to hold a lot of minorities, who Republicans perceive to be against them. There are good reasons for this, since minority voters tend to vote in larger numbers for Democrats, and in particular naturalized citizens. However, there is a whole universe that neither tribe cares for, or reaches to. This is about half eligible voters. In many ways they tend to be both minority and from lower income levels. These are people who have been disenfranchised because the political system does not serve them.

How does this translate to actual data? in 2016 according to the Guardian:

But many adults in the US did not vote for Trump simply because they didn’t vote for anyone at all — (My emphasis) 136 million ballots were cast in total, meaning that 45 percent of adults who live in the US did not participate on election day. There are many reasons why they didn’t vote but one takeaway is clear: the obstacles to voting disproportionately affect people of color.

Low turnout has direct effects. The Washington Post wrote after the 2016 contest this:

This relatively low turnout can have a pronounced affect on the outcome of the race. For example, though Donald Trump won the presidency after an unusually divisive and controversial campaign, he appears to have done so with fewer votes than Mitt Romney lost the election with in 2012.

You may want to re-read that again, given that the 2012 election already had a low turnout when compared to other countries. The competition for active voters ignores roughly half of potential voters. Neither tribe bothers with them, because they are already discounted by both pollsters and in active civic engagement. If anything, they become the punchline in a national joke.

A rule of thumb among political strategists is that low turnout elections tend to favor the Republican tribe, since their voters seem to be more committed and engaged. It does not matter if this is a primary election, a special election, or a general election. They tend to vote more often.

All this is a known part of the soup. What you will very rarely hear is a fundamental question: Why is a large group of eligible people not voting?

Lets dispense with the small number who wanted to vote, but were prevented by an emergency or family crisis. These, I believe are a very small number, and temporary in nature. There is still a very large percentage of potential voters who do not vote regularly by choice.

There are several factors playing a role in this. State level policies help to suppress the vote, or encourage the vote.

How states run voter registration plays a critical role, and in this country those policies are set state by state. Why California will start automatically registering voters at 18, while there are states where you need to actively register. A good example of this is the state of New York. There is also this belief that voter suppression policies only exist in red states. They exist, across the nation. The New York Democratic primary had plenty of that. First the deadline to register for the primary was well before the race got truly underway. So there were people who were locked out of the ballots.

Then there was what looked like a purge in the New York Democratic primary. Mother Jones has some of the most colorful writing on the issue, but it was covered elsewhere:

The first head has rolled after more than 100,000 voters were mistakenly purged from the Brooklyn voter rolls ahead of this week’s New York primary, which handed Hillary Clinton a much-needed win over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Diane Haslett-Rudiano, the chief clerk of the New York Board of Elections, was suspended “without pay, effective immediately, pending an internal investigation into the administration of the voter rolls in the Borough of Brooklyn,” the agency said in a statement, according to the New York Daily News.

On the day of the primary, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, a Clinton supporter, said he’d heard reports of the “purging of entire buildings and blocks of voters from the voting lists.” He said, “The perception that numerous voters may have been disenfranchised undermines the integrity of the entire electoral process.”

I point to this as an example of how voter suppression works. Those 100,000 voters could have given New York to Senator Bernie Sanders in the primary. This is not about 2016, but the general practice of tribes wanting to keep unwanted voters, who are active, off the voting rolls. And it also indirectly leads to the voter attitude from these suppressed voters, of who cares? It is toxic.

There are significant differences between both states. One state requires active engagement by the potential voter, the other will register you automatically to vote. As a partisan you will have to change that registration from decline to state to partisan, but given the Democratic primary is open in California, it matters little of you want to vote with the Democrats. (Unless you want to vote for Central Committee members, that part is closed to non-partisans) You will have to actively change it if you desire to vote in the Republican primary. But the initial step, initial registration, is taken care off. If you are a citizen, you can vote. This is expected to raise voter participation. This is one reason it was furiously opposed by Republicans in California.

The United States has a patchwork of registration policies across all fifty states. Some allow early registration, and absentee voting. Others allow for same day registration. In other words, rules do change from state for state. This also creates barriers for people who move from one state to another for work, or retirement. Rules are so different that they might seem overwhelming. This is especially the case for older Americans, or those moving from easy to register states, to more difficult ones. For example, moving from California to Kansas might pose some issues. It depends on the level of proof each state requires to register for the first time.

However, Kansas’ requirement of proof of citizenship was just overturned by the courts.

This patchwork of policies has a negative effect on voting.

But there is another factor at play. One that many activists in both parties fail to comprehend. Voting is also a matter of civic education and engagement. We do not teach people the value of voting in large swaths of the country. And we prefer it that way.

The United States does not have a politically engaged population. Why? There are many reasons for this and I asked non-voters this question, WHY? One of the chief reasons people gave me for not voting is lack of time. Yes, voting takes time away from work, and when you have to work two to three jobs to keep the lights on, it is not a priority. Work is. Chiefly, many anecdotally have told me that voting does not make a difference in their lives either. PEW went and looked at this and they found that this is a small group in the universe of non-voters:

The share who said they were too busy or had a conflicting schedule in 2016 — the most common reason given in previous elections — was down from 19% in 2012 to 14%. The share saying they did not vote because they were not interested or felt their vote would not make a difference (15% in 2016) changed little from the last presidential election.

Of course, last electoral cycle we also had a higher number that did not like either candidate. And that was about a quarter of all potential voters. Total voting rates dropped from 2012, and this translated to millions of people who sat it out. Some in critical areas where it did decide the election in the Electoral College.

But there is also another reality about voting. It is a habit, like muscle memory. People who do not vote in a single election due to an emergency, are likely to vote in the next one. People who think it does not matter, tend to sit it out. People who did not start early, and did not see their parents doing it, are likely to not vote either. This is why it is critical to get 18 year olds involved early. It is also important that parents talk about this at home and take their children to the ballots. One of my earliest memories was my mother marking her ballot, and putting it in the box when growing up. My mother voted in every election right until the end.

But candidates also matter. If you field a bad candidate with way too many negatives, do not be too surprised that your tribe’s natural voters sit it out. And if you make your election relevant, even to customary non voters, you might increase that voter turnout. However, this is not a hard or fast rule.

In the upset of the year, the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes in New York, had a very low turnout. The data is clear on that one.

Though Ocasio-Cortez whipped up energy among voters in the Queens and Bronx district, and there is little to compare voter turnout to because Crowley had not been challenged since 2004, the primary election was decided, like most elections in New York, by a relatively small number of people.

With 98 percent of precincts reporting as of Wednesday, the State Board of Elections shows 27,826 registered Democrats cast votes in Tuesday’s primary in New York’s 14th District. With 235,745 registered Democrats as of April, according to the BOE, this comes out to a turnout of around 11.8 percent.

She managed to get voters from all areas of the district, which is not the common story line told in the media, that relies in the changing nature of the district. But for the sake of our argument, no election with a 12 percent turnout, can be considered to be democratic, or engaging of the citizenry. That turnout in her primary was average. That is a problem.

So the argument that she converted non voters, to voters might hold some water. However, this would mean that usual voters decided to stay home. Or alternatively, she excited those who usually vote anyway, and I suspect it was the latter. People who will vote no matter what decided that they needed a change from an incumbent that took them for granted.

How do we increase voting participation?

  • Good candidates will help. Those candidates need to run on issues that matter to the people Negative campaigns tend to suppress voting.
  • Motor Voter bills will help as well to engage voters, especially the young ones.
  • Implement mail in ballots, like Oregon does
  • A voting holiday, lets say on a Sunday, however this comes with a huge qualifier. Those who work two to three jobs will resent this loss of income.
  • Mandatory voting laws, like they exist in places like Australia and the Netherlands
  • A single set of national policies, and if you insist on voter IDs, they have to be free and easy to obtain

Realize that all these changes will face resistance. Why? Those who run the politics game like it the way it is. There are some in the country would love to limit voting for certain people. And I will also add, that the rush to a voter ID at present is meant to suppress the vote even further. Nor is it really needed, since voter fraud is so rare that it does not change elections.

People need to drop their disdain for non-voters. We need people to get engaged, and vote. Accusing them of not being good citizens is not going to get them to the polls. You need to listen to people. Your candidates need to run on matters relevant to people who need to get excited. If elections become relevant to even five percent of these potential voters, and it transform them into regular voters… that will start us towards more responsive politics.

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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