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Why Don't People Vote

Is voter participation at a new low?

It's just weeks away from the first round of presidential caucuses and primaries here in the US, and in coming months we will hear more about how low voter participation typically is in US presidential elections—and whether it matters.

I thought that I'd start by writing about why people don't vote in US presidential elections. That is, why don't those American citizens who are registered to vote turnout? In later essays I'll take up related questions, like why eligible citizens don't register to vote, a question on which there is considerable research.

Voter participation has been one of the most heavily studied questions for decades. In fact, some of the earliest empirical studies of voting behavior were studies of participation and mobilization: Harold Gosnell's 1927 book, Getting Out The Vote, still is a classic in the field. And these same questions continue to be studied: one of my recent Ph.D. students here at Caltech, Ines Levin, has just completed a wonderful Ph.D. these on voter participation, A New Approach to the Study of Political Participation. So after more than eight decades of research, voter participation is something that researchers know a lot about.

These days, some of the very best data on voter participation in the US come from the US Census Bureau. For the past few decades, the Census Bureau has mounted a large-scale survey during each federal election, both midterm and presidential races. The Census Bureau's surveys are relatively straightforward in their design, but as they have very large samples they provide a rich resource for researchers.

In recent years, our team at the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project has made use of a surprisingly simple question in the recent Census Bureau voting surveys. The Census Bureau has asked registered nonvoters to simply state why it is that they don't vote. And the answers to this simple question are very telling about why Americans who are otherwise registered do not vote.

In the 2008 Census Bureau voting survey, topping the list of reasons for not voting is a lack of interest (13%) or a dislike of the candidates or issues (13%). More than a quarter of registered nonvoters in 2008 didn't vote because they weren't interested or didn't like their choices.

Many reported illness or disability (15%), especially among older registered nonvoters. Others were too busy, or had conflicting schedules (17%). That's about a third of the registered nonvoters.

Of the remainder, many had some logistical problem with the process: 6% had problems with their voter registration, 3% did not have convenient polling places, and another 3% had some sort of transportation problem. And 0.2% reported that bad weather conditions kept them from the polls on election day.

What does this tell us about why not all of those who are registered actually cast a ballot in the 2008 presidential election? According to the Census Bureau data, 131 million people participated in that election, of 146 million registered voters, and of 206 million citizens who are of voting age. Those who are registered and otherwise eligible to vote, but who don't, are tuned out or turned off; they are sick or too busy; or they have something procedural that prevents them from voting.

It's difficult to say how our presidential elections could be changed so that so many weren't tuned out or turned off. No doubt the negativity of campaigns, which I've written about recently, has something to do with that. But changing that will be difficult, if not impossible, given how political speech is constitutionally protected in the US.

But the other issues can be resolved; many states have been working to make the voting process more convenient, and less burdensome, for voters. However, these reforms have recently come under attack throughout the nation, which may mean that more voters in 2012 will find it difficult and inconvenient to cast their ballot.

Does this matter for how elections are decided? And why aren't people registered to vote? Those are questions for forthcoming essays, but your thoughts and reactions are welcome.

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