5 Psychological Barriers to Voting

Why some people don't vote.

Posted Oct 15, 2020

Element5digital/Unsplash
Source: Element5digital/Unsplash

We've all heard the messages encouraging us to vote. Yet, voting rates remain at far less than 100%. Let's unpack psychological reasons people don't vote. If you're on the fence about if you'll vote, understanding these might help you decide.

At the end of the article, I'll offer suggestions for overcoming these barriers.

1. Perfectionism.

Most people have made up their minds about who they support for President. However, you might feel much greater uncertainty about the rest of your ballot. It can be extremely challenging to feel fully informed about every single candidate and issue that's on the ballot.

If you're a perfectionist, you may put off voting because you're unsure about all those other decisions. If you put deciding off long enough, it might not happen.

If you don't feel informed enough, you might think it's better to leave the decisions to other people who you presume are more knowledgeable than you are. If you think like this, question whether other people really are more informed than you are. Do your best to make informed choices. That's all anyone else is doing.

2. You're rebelling and resisting what you're told you "should" do.

Some folks rebel against anything they're told they should do. They're temperamentally prone to rebel and resist obligations that are placed on them. 

3. Other people around you aren't voting.

Behavior is contagious and voting is a social behavior. If you live in a home in which the other adults aren't going out to vote, it might feel weird for you to do it.

4. You're angry or uninspired about your choices.

If you don't feel inspired by your choices, you might take no action. Folks who are repeatedly subjected to aversive experiences beyond their control can develop learned helplessness. This is a pervasive sense of powerlessness that leads to inaction.

5. Too many choices about how to vote.

Expanded options for how to vote are a double-edged sword. On one hand, they're inclusive and break down barriers to voting. On the other hand, introducing additional choices can trigger decision fatigue. If you put off deciding how and when you'll vote because there are numerous options to choose from, it introduces risk that you won't get around to it. 

Perfectionists may put off choosing how they'll vote if they're not convinced there is a perfect option. Anxious folks may put it off because they're scared of messing up the voting process, or of casting their ballot, changing their mind, and it being too late. Busy people who already feel overwhelmed with too many decisions may be especially vulnerable to putting off any behavior that requires extra decision-making.

Solutions:

  • Make a plan to vote with friends. In COVID times, this could be virtual. For example, you have a Zoom party in which you fill out your mail-in ballots. You can collectively search for information about the down-ballot candidates and issues you don't have pre-formed opinions about. In this scenario, you can still keep your actual votes private but share some work researching the candidates and issues. (If you decide to make your voting process semi-social, be aware that in some states it's illegal to show anyone your marked ballot.)
  • Attach yourself to role models who are voting.
  • Ditch the perfectionism. Pick one option for how to vote, without overthinking the different choices about the process of voting (in-person, mail, etc), and get it done. Remind yourself that you're doing the best you can to make informed choices.
  • Where possible, develop a voting habit/routine that you can repeat each election. Having a habit for how you vote (your routine of voting, not necessarily who you vote for) will help reduce decision fatigue and make participating in the voting process feel more automatic and less effortful. You won't need to make new decisions about who you'll vote with, when, and how each time — for example, if you always vote at lunchtime on the first day of early voting with a friend from work.