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Voting rights is one of the foundational principles of American democracy. The Colonial Era rallying cry “no taxation without representation” was a rebuke of policies that were enacted without the say of the civilians they affected. The struggle to expand and protect the right to vote has been an enduring effort throughout the nation’s history.
Despite that legacy, a substantial number of Americans don’t vote. Nearly 137 million people voted in the 2016 election — roughly 56 percent of the U.S. voting age population. Almost 100 million people who had the right to vote didn’t.
The U.S. has one of the lowest voting rates of any developed nation. National turnout hasn’t surpassed 65 percent in more than a century. The numbers are even lower in nonpresidential elections like midterms and primaries. Nonvoters are one of the most significant demographics in deciding American elections. The approximately 4.4 million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 didn’t vote at all in 2016. Donald Trump’s Electoral College win was decided by roughly 78,000 votes in three swing states.
Why there’s debate
The factors that lead someone to skip Election Day are often a complex mix of personal and institutional factors. There are some patterns, however. Relative to active voters, nonvoters tend to be younger, have less education, lower income, are less likely to be married and are more likely to be people of color — demographics that statistically skew Democratic. This imbalance of who votes has a major influence on the types of leaders elected and policies that are implemented.
Surveys of nonvoters show that many are disillusioned with American democracy and frequently feel that the system is corrupt, voting doesn’t matter or that the candidates do not adequately represent them. There’s also a significant group for whom voting is too difficult, either because they lack the time and resources to go to the polls or because they feel overwhelmed by the process.
Another cause of low turnout, some argue, is a deliberate campaign by entrenched leaders who want to make it more difficult for people who aren’t likely to “make the right choice”. The historical record provides some evidence of this theory. Since key elements of the Voting Rights Act were undercut by the Supreme Court in 2013, Republicans in several states have been accused of targeted voter-suppression efforts, such as voter ID laws, gerrymandering, purging of voter rolls and the closing of polling places.
Spikes in voter turnout in the 2018 midterms and the current Democratic primaries suggest that more people will participate in this year’s general election than in previous cycles. Conventional wisdom holds that would be an advantage for Democrats, but some recent research indicates it may in fact benefit the GOP.
Nonvoters aren’t courted the way swing voters are
“White swing voters are largely treated like political free agents who must be persuaded to vote for candidates they like. People of color and young people are treated like political cattle who must be whipped into shape to turn out for candidates they often don’t like.” — Ibram X. Kendi, Atlantic
Voting and not voting are both habits that can get locked in when we’re young
“Voter turnout is a habitual behavior: The best predictor of whether you’ll do it in the future is whether you have a pattern of doing it. People who vote in the first three elections when they’re eligible will likely vote for the rest of their life. And the chaotic years from 18 to 21 are a terrible stage to acquire a new habitual behavior, because they’re full of so many life changes.” — Kelsey Piper, Vox
Various obstacles keep young people from voting
“Though many young people want to vote, they are much more likely than their elder counterparts to be derailed by the obstacles that get in their way. Young people are especially sensitive to how difficult and complicated it is to register and to vote.” — John B. Holbein and D. Sunshine Hillygus, New York Daily News
Efforts to limit the “wrong” people from voting have always been a part of American democracy
From the very founding of the United States, elites have worked to disenfranchise and suppress voters — because they know a mobilized electorate of workers and poor people would transform the country.” — Alexander Keyssar, Jacobin
The GOP suppresses the votes of likely Democratic voters
“Trump’s party knows all too well that the numbers are against them, that they cannot win nationally without cheating. So they do. Behind a fig leaf of concern over imaginary voter fraud, Republicans have imposed photo I.D. laws, voter purges and polling-place closures that disproportionately disenfranchise those who don’t vote GOP.” — Leonard Pitts Jr., Miami Herald
The challenges of everyday life can make voting difficult hard for many people
“Voting may simply be too difficult. I often hear of people who — even with early voting or absentee options — cannot vote because they lack transportation. They are homeless. They lack child care. They are disabled. They work, go to school and live in different cities.” — Andrew Joseph Pegoda, The Conversation
Many believe voting can’t fix a broken system
“Many of the people I talked to were very dismissive of the idea that politics mattered in their lives. … We read in the news that we’re in this moment where it’s a battle for the soul of America, but they’re way beyond that. They don’t think there is any America left.” — Sociologist Jennifer Silva to Slate
Campaigns don’t put resources into effective methods of increasing turnout
“The most effective voter-turnout technique is person-to-person contact from a trusted source like a family member, friend or neighbor; this is far more successful than impersonal paid communication like TV, digital or radio ads. But most nonvoters or infrequent voters don’t get this kind of outreach because campaigns and independent political groups generally ignore people with low ‘turnout scores.’” — Karthik Balasubramanian, New York Times
Some women feel that they don’t deserve to have a voice
“We’ve been told for millennia that we should be silent, we shouldn’t speak, we should submit, we’re not that smart. That long history adds to women thinking that they are not entitled to the vote or that they don’t need to make time for it.” — National Organization for Women president Toni Van Pelt to Politico
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Trent Nelson /The Salt Lake Tribune via AP