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What Is Psychological Voter Suppression?

What motivates the decision to vote or to stay at home?

Pixabay, Amberzen
Source: Pixabay, Amberzen

Voter suppression is a tactic to prevent or discourage people from casting their ballots. Some people point to voter ID laws, complex voter registration procedures, fraudulent purging of voters from the rolls, felon disenfranchisement, and disinformation about voting, among other tactics used in the U.S. Historically, Jim Crow laws, poll taxes and literacy tests were used to disenfranchise Black voters. Of course, voting was limited to White males until the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870, and women didn’t get suffrage until 1920. Voter suppression has been a mainstay of politics for much of U.S. history.

But what is psychological voter suppression? I think we can define it as a cognitive and/or emotional “poll tax” which makes it easier to stay home or otherwise avoid the task of making a choice that is, for some reason, hard to swallow. Psychological voter suppression saps the motivation of citizens to register or go to the polls on election day. Some candidates may use psychological tactics to dissuade or even intimidate their opposition from going to the polls, as well as fire up their base. Senator Elizabeth Warren recently said to the NYT , "Discouragement is the most powerful voter suppression tool in America today."

There are many ways that psychology can suppress or affect voting. Voting itself is an act of participation and assertion that depends on psychological, social, emotional and cognitive factors. (The following derive from my reading of Harder and Krosnick’s 2008 paper as well as my own thoughts and observations, and are likely not exhaustive. If you have other ideas, please add them in the comments.)

  1. Voter disgust – The potential voter is unhappy with the choices, and therefore chooses to sit out the election. One candidate may throw so much mud on their opponent that it disinclines their potential supporters from showing up on Election day. In this election, both major party presidential candidates have record levels of disapproval, even disgust. Will this rally their opposition more, or suppress their bases? Hard to know.
  2. Voter apathy – The potential voter thinks their vote wouldn’t really matter. Polling tells them their candidate is significantly ahead or behind, so their vote doesn’t “count.” In a solidly Republican or Democratic state, voters in the perceived majority might sit out an election. This can have significant consequences on down-ballot races and propositions, and of course affects the popular vote tallies for the top of the ballot.
  3. Devaluation of voting – Other priorities crowd out registration and voting. I’ve known people who say they’re too busy or preoccupied to vote.
  4. Voter disenchantment and distrust – The potential voter believes the system is bankrupt or corrupt, and therefore opts out. Distrust could motivate voting, though, if one believes one’s vote is important to correct the system. People who are more trusting of others are more likely to vote, as are those involved in civic organizations and people who are married or partnered. Trust and civic engagement are at ebbs, particularly among the young, and we have been marrying later. All these factors would likely lower voter turnout.
  5. Voter protest – To avoid supporting a candidate with whom he or she has qualms, the voter casts a ballot for a candidate with little or no chance of winning. This is a more comfortable choice psychologically, but can obviously tilt the election.
  6. Voter fear – for some, casting a ballot could have fearsome consequences. People living in ideologically or racially diverse neighborhoods have been shown to vote less often, perhaps out of ambivalence or fear of offending neighbors. In some countries, voters have been murdered for exercising their rights.
  7. Voter intimidation and powerlessness – One candidate or party could essentially bully a population into silence, or sap their willingness to participate.
  8. Voter insecurity – The potential voter doesn’t believe they have enough information to make an informed choice. Even as an educated voter, I rarely have time to dig into all the details of every one of the many (this year, over 20) ballot propositions. A daunting ballot might dissuade some voters entirely.
  9. Lower voter confidence or lack of status (insecurity, part two) - Lower educational attainment, verbal SAT scores, income, and youth tend to decrease voter turnout. I think these all could impact confidence in the ability to make decisions and buy-in to the voting process.
  10. Low political efficacy – “Citizens who have a higher level of political efficacy turn out more. This is true for both internal efficacy (the belief in one’s capability to understand and participate in politics) and external efficacy (the belief in the responsiveness of political institutions to citizen involvement. The higher an individual’s efficacy, the more motivated he or she presumably is to cast a ballot.” (from Harder and Krosnick, cited below)
  11. Low Group Solidarity – Voters with higher group solidarity are more likely to turn out.
  12. Low sense of civic duty – Citizens who think of voting as a civic duty are more likely to vote.
  13. Low patience and low level of ability to delay gratification – The potential benefits of voting take time to emerge (if they emerge at all), which might make the cost of registering and going to the polls too high for some.
  14. Voting is not a habit – Voters tend to vote by habit; if the habit hasn’t formed, they are less likely to go to the polls.

Downs proposed the following equation in 1957:

R = (B) (P) – C + D

Where R is the reward of voting, B is the benefit from having one’s preferred candidate win, P is the perceived probability that one’s vote will change the election outcome, C is the cost of voting (in terms of time, money and other resources), and D is the psychic satisfaction of voting. Psychological factors certainly play into all factors in this equation. “The more positive R is, the more likely an individual is to vote.” (Harder and Krosnick, 2008) Since in a large election, P is relatively small, D, the psychic satisfaction of voting, must make up for costs of voting, low probability of changing the election outcome, and any perception that the candidate would not provide benefit to the voter.

Harder and Krosnick supply a different equation:

Likelihood of voting = (Motivation to vote * Ability to vote)/ Difficulty of voting

Or ironically, MA/D for short! The psychological factors outlined above play into all these variables, especially motivation.

What is your motivation to vote or not vote this year? Answer in the comments below.

I’m a habitual voter and volunteer for political campaigns. I consider it my civic duty. I feel like I’m at least a little on-the-hook if candidates and policies that don’t (in my view) support social and mental health and other values don’t advance. I’m fully aware that political leaders have major impacts on everything from school bullying and harassment (see the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report “ The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on our Nation’s Schools ”) to appointing Supreme Court justices and making decisions on war, diplomacy and climate change. Psychologically, I couldn’t not vote. The consequences are too stark.


Harder and Krosnick. Why Do People Vote? Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 64, No. 3, 2008, pp. 525—549, accessible at

(c) 2016, Ravi Chandra, M.D. F.A.P.A.

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