This was the largest turnout in history for any election, but 1/3rd of voting-eligible people still didn't vote. Now, why is that?
In the last election for the President of the United States, arguably the most powerful person in the world, 159 million people voted. This was the largest turnout in history for a presidential election, but a third of voting-eligible people still didn’t vote. Now, why is that?
Let’s take a look at one of the starkest examples in America, Oklahoma. Oklahoma had the lowest turnout for the presidential election. There are a couple factors that are clear immediately. Oklahomans cannot register to vote online, unlike residents of thirty-seven other states. This lowers overall voter registration numbers, making less people readily available to vote by the deadline. Oklahoma doesn’t have same-day voter registration, it doesn’t have robust voter-protection laws, it doesn’t have automatic registration. Oklahoma isn’t a battleground state, meaning that its voters are more prone to experiencing voter apathy. The voters (correctly or incorrectly) assume that their votes don’t matter since the outcome would be the same, regardless of if they voted.
It’s easy to blame the voters for not caring about low turnout, but that’s only a small factor. Many people don’t vote because it is hard to vote. In 2012, registered voters in Oklahoma who didn’t vote were asked why they didn’t vote. A majority of non-voters referenced other issues, from disabilities to transportation. The reality is that people want to vote but they cannot because it isn’t convenient. Election day is on a Tuesday, forcing voters to take a day off work and miss a day of pay. Mail-in voting wasn’t widely available before the 2020 election, and even then it was contested. Now that we have discussed some of the more obvious factors, let’s take a look at some that won’t be clear at all.
Did you know that almost 1.3 million Americans sat out willingly, not because of inability or even lack of interest? Jehovah’s Witnesses do not vote, because taking action to “change governments,” including by voting, is against their religion. Neutrality is a core tenet of the faith and voting in partisan elections violates that. Personal philosophies will always be present, but what about more nebulous concerns?
Even weather is a factor for many potential voters, with some studies showing that rain reduces left leaning votes and increases the share of right leaning voters.
Obviously, weather wouldn’t change the outcome of a presidential election, but in local tickets, a fraction of a percentage point can make a big difference.
All these statistics do not illustrate the reality of someone facing obstacles trying to vote. In my own personal experience as a phone banker, I came across many registered voters that had already voted, were already planning on voting in person, or had some semblance of a plan already. However, one interaction that stuck in my mind was one I had with an older man on the day of the Georgia Senate run-offs. I had called through the autodialer and the man picked up; he had been experiencing issues with the phone already, but he seemed willing to listen to the phone banking spiel. I asked him if he was registered. Hearing yes, I asked him if he had already voted or had plans to vote that day. He had tried to vote by mail but it hadn’t arrived in time.
I asked him if he was voting that day instead then. He said no, but he said it was because his mother had died and she was his only ride to vote.
I tried to guide him through ordering a ride through an app, but he only had a landline. I tried to order him a taxi but none of the local ones had service. Even ride2vote, a voter advocacy and transportation group, was having issues. I escalated the situation to my supervisor and she was able to get him in contact with the county Democrats who were able to provide him with a ride to the polls.
In that one situation, there were so many pain points that in any other circumstances, would have prevented him from voting. He wanted to vote and he tried, but he was nearly prevented by so many factors. For every story like his, where he was able to successfully cast his ballot, how many eligible voters are unable? Voting needs to be easy. It needs to be easy for people with disabilities, people without consistent transportation. It needs to be easy for people on shift work who can’t afford to not work and it needs to be easy for high school seniors turning eighteen. The right to vote is one that Americans have fought to have. Give it to them.
Cover: Ellas Williams/NPR