A few days ago, I was in a small meeting devoted to civic education. Attendees included some very smart, very savvy individuals, all of whom were veterans of the longstanding effort to increase civic knowledge and civic literacy. But when the individual who had convened this particular group asked what should have been a simple question, we were all stumped.
The question was: why are so many Americans uninterested in voting?
She might as well have asked why so many Americans are uninterested in democracy.
There were, as always, several theories: some of us felt that disinterest was due to a lack of understanding of what government does, and the multiple ways in which its operations affect our daily lives. Others noted that–for the millions of people barely scraping by–the daily struggle for survival leaves little time or energy for political involvement.
Perhaps the culprit is the culture, and the distractions provided by entertainment and celebrity. Or perhaps there’s something to my longtime theory that gerrymandering has produced so many “safe” seats, it has convinced significant numbers of citizens that their votes won’t count, so why bother? It’s all rigged against them anyway, and taking time to inform oneself and cast a ballot would simply be time spent doing a useless thing.
Of course, even people who would otherwise vote continue to encounter practical barriers to exercise of the franchise. America makes it hard to vote, and Indiana is among the worst: our polls close earlier than those of all but one other state.
In any given election, between 35 and 60 percent of eligible voters don’t cast a ballot. It’s not that hard to understand why. Our system doesn’t make it particularly easy to vote, and the decision to carve out a few hours to cast a ballot requires a sense of motivation that’s hard for some Americans to muster every two or four years — enthusiasm about the candidates, belief in the importance of voting itself, a sense that anything can change as the result of a single vote.
The site conducted a poll, and found that the answer to the question who votes — and who doesn’t — is complex, and that most Americans don’t fall neatly into any one category.
Of the 8,000-plus people we polled, we were able to match nearly 6,000 to their voting history. We analyzed the views of the respondents in that slightly smaller group, and found that they fell into three broad groups: 1) people who almost always vote; 2) people who sometimes vote; and 3) people who rarely or never vote. People who sometimes vote were a plurality of the group (44 percent), while 31 percent nearly always cast a ballot and just 25 percent almost never vote….there weren’t huge differences between people who vote almost all the time and those who vote less consistently. Yes, those who voted more regularly were higher income, more educated, more likely to be white and more likely to identify with one of the two political parties, but those who only vote some of the time were also fairly highly educated and white, and not overwhelmingly young. There were much bigger differences between people who sometimes vote and those who almost never vote.
Nonvoters were more likely to have lower incomes; to be young; to have lower levels of education; and to say they don’t belong to either political party, which are all traits that square with what we know about people less likely to engage with the political system.
Getting people to the polls is pretty daunting–especially in Indiana, which routinely ranks at the bottom for measures of engagement and turnout. But the small contingent of civic educators continues to try…
Among that contingent is Bill Moreau, who established the Indiana Citizen a couple of years ago. It’s sort of a one-stop shop for electoral information –how to register, where to vote, and other practical information–but also a place to find the sorts of nonpartisan reporting that allows readers to cast an informed vote. What is Indiana’s legislature doing now, and why? Why can’t Hoosiers get redistricting reforms passed? How will this year’s gerrymandering affect me? Who’s running for what, and what are their policy proposals?
We used to turn to local newspapers for this sort of coverage, but–as I constantly complain–the pathetic remnants of those papers no longer provide the coverage that a democratic polity requires. The Indiana Citizen is among the various credible websites trying to fill the gap left by what we now call “the legacy press”–but of course, in order to fill that gap, people need to know it’s there–and that’s a significant barrier to overcome.
If you are a Hoosier, check it out. Tell your friends. And vote.
Kennedy recently retired as professor of law and public policy at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.