Voting is a right that allows citizens to make their voices heard, but the reality is that as many as half of eligible voters in the US still don’t participate in the election process.
The US lags far behind most other developed countries when it comes to voter turnout. Only 55.7% of Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election, and even less of the population, 36.4%, voted in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.
People’s motivations for voting vary. They might believe voting is their civic duty and that their ballot has the power to make a difference. Others just want to fit in with their peers, or their anger about a certain issue drives them to the polls.
The reasons people don’t vote are just as complex. While full voter participation helps maintain a fair and functioning democracy, everything from logistics to socioeconomic status can get in the way.
Here’s a list of five things stopping Americans from voting.
1. Many Americans want to vote but can’t.
Leon Brown drives his tractor-trailer on a delivery to the Port of Savannah, in Garden City, Ga in May 2019. After being released from prison, Brown is cut off from voting due to a vaguely worded law that state election officials interpret very strictly.
Hundreds of thousands of nonvoters would vote if they could. Voters need identification to vote in 36 states, which means the 21 million Americans who don’t have government-issued photo ID are at risk of missing out. Financial barriers, lack of access to transportation, and limited information can make it difficult for older people, people of color, and low-income people to obtain an ID.
Former and current prisoners convicted of felonies are another group of people who are often disenfranchised during elections, especially if they are African American. Maine and Vermont are the only states that do not prohibit those convicted of felonies from voting, even when they are in prison.
The Electoral College system, a body of electors founded by the US constitution, also bars millions of residents who live in US territories — including Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico — from voting in general elections, even though presidents’ decisions influence their lives.
2. Age, gender, education, socioeconomic status, and race can impact whether a person votes.
Research shows that nonvoters are more likely to be low-income, young, Hispanic, or Asian American.
Several barriers tend to get in the way for people living in poverty, and the US census found that 47% of eligible citizens with household incomes of less than $20,000 didn’t vote in 2012. One survey conducted by Caltech and MIT of registered and non-registered voters who didn’t cast a ballot in the 2008 election suggested that people of color are more likely not to vote because they encounter more barriers to voting, compared to white citizens who tend not to vote by choice. Various laws and structural systems, from limited early voting windows to ID restrictions, disproportionately impact people of color and contribute to voter suppression across the country.
Registration in the US is also complicated further by the fact that it’s left up to individuals, compared to other countries where the process is automatic. Getting a new ID can be unaffordable, missing work isn’t always a financial option, and low-income people are more likely to move, which adds another step of paperwork to register. Older citizens, however, tend to stay in one place and therefore don’t have to reregister, which results in higher voter turnout in their demographic.
College graduates, who tend to make more money, are also more likely to seek out information on politics and vote.
Regardless of other factors, women report turning out to vote at slightly higher rates than men.
3. Election Day is held on Tuesdays.
A line of mostly students wait to vote at a Texas primary election polling site on the University of Texas campus in Austin, Texas on March 6, 2018.
Sunday is the most common voting day around the world, except in the US. Election Day falls on Tuesdays in the country and is not a federal holiday, presenting a dilemma for many workers who don’t get paid time off to go to polling place and wait in line. While early voting and mail-in voting gives citizens more flexibility, not all states offer these options.
4. Voters who don’t feel candidates represent their views might choose to opt-out.
The Republican and Democratic parties are the two largest political parties in the US. The 7% of citizens who don’t support either and are registered as independent tend to be less politically engaged. They also can’t vote for a presidential candidate in the primary election.
5. Citizens are less likely to vote if they don’t think their ballot matters.
As many as 15% of registered voters reported that they didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election because they didn’t believe their vote would make a difference, according to Census Bureau data. A different Pew Research Center survey found that half of the participants didn’t bother to research the election because they didn’t think their vote impacted the government, even though voting is one of the few ways for citizens to push forward policies they support.
The many obstacles citizens face to vote can be discouraging, but when people don’t vote, they are silenced. With enough preparation and information, voting can help citizens play an important role in shaping the world in which they want to live. You can check your voter registration status here.
Global Citizen and HeadCount have teamed up to launch Just Vote, a campaign mobilizing young Americans to register to vote ahead of the 2020 election and beyond. As part of the campaign, your favorite artists and entertainers are offering exclusive experiences, performances, and memorabilia — and they can only be unlocked once eligible voters check their voter registration status. Learn more about Just Vote and how you can take action here.