What Keeps Americans from Going to the Polls?

In an election year, all eyes are on voter turnout. While some experts are predicting record turnout this November, that still means about one-third of registered voters will not cast a ballot on Election Day. 

According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. lags behind most developed countries in its voter turnout. What’s keeping Americans from the polls? There’s no clear-cut answer that applies to everyone, but there are a few trends and factors that combine to keep turnout low. 

Election Day Timing

Election Day is always the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The date was set during a different time in American life, when the country was much more agrarian and nearly everything revolved around farming. 

November was at the end of the harvest season, and holding elections on a Tuesday gave people enough time to travel by horse to polling places that could be located far away from their farms. Today, of course, life looks a lot different, but the logistics of Election Day have stayed largely the same.

Work schedules, child care, and other obligations keep some voters away from the polls, particularly those who work hourly jobs or do not have consistent access to childcare. Some eligible voters literally cannot afford to stand in line and wait to vote.

Early voting helps alleviate some of this pressure, and 39 states have some form of early voting. Some open the polls a week or two before Election Day, while others allow voting by mail. 

Another solution to this problem would be to make Election Day a national holiday, which would mean that many businesses would close. However, restaurants, stores, and other businesses with a high percentage of hourly employees would likely remain open.

According to the Society of Human Resource Management, 44 percent of employers give employees paid time off to vote. Increasing this percentage would also increase voter turnout.

Voter Apathy 

Even if people have the ability to vote, it does not necessarily mean that they will. America’s two-party system and structures like the Electoral College can combine to make voters feel like their individual ballot is not going to make a difference in an election’s outcome. 

According to the Hidden Tribes report from More In Common, about 25 percent of the country is “politically disengaged,” meaning they are detached from politics and tend to avoid conversations about it. Finding a way to engage this group would likely increase voter turnout.

Solutions like a multiparty system and ranked-choice voting, which give individual voters a greater sense of agency, have been proposed as alternatives. However, the current power structure and gridlock at the federal level make nation-wide reform unlikely to pass anytime soon.

Voter turnout may also increase when there are close, high-profile elections — like the 2020 presidential election. The competition between Donald Trump and whomever the Democratic nominee might be is the biggest driver behind the high predicted turnout in November.

Countries like Australia and Belgium make voting mandatory by imposing a fine on people who do not show up at the polls (similar to a parking ticket), but that also seems unlikely to happen in the U.S. anytime soon.

Grassroots Pulse covers public policy and political issues aimed at engaging highly-active policy makers, donors, and grassroots leaders at the forefront of the political process in America today.

Image Credit: Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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