Illustration by Michelle Pereira
Democratic campaign committees and activist groups have been spending millions of dollars to fight against a range of legal obstacles on voting, believing that making voter registration easier and keeping polls open longer would inspire more Americans to turn out.
But to nonvoters themselves, those issues don’t seem to be at the forefront of their minds: Only 8 percent of nonvoters said they don’t vote because they don’t have the time to get to the polls — fourth on the list of reasons they cited. Only 5 percent of nonvoters said they don’t vote because they aren’t registered.
That was the surprising finding of a sweeping new study released Wednesday by the Knight Foundation. The study, which involved polling and interviews with over 14,000 people, showed that a plurality of nonvoters cited a dislike of the candidates (17 percent) and a feeling that their votes don’t matter (12 percent) as the main motivators for not voting.
There were similar responses with why eligible citizens chose not to register. According to the study, 29 percent of nonvoters said they were not registered to vote because of a lack of interest, followed by 13 percent saying their votes don’t matter. Only 8 percent said they don’t vote because they don’t know how or it’s too complicated.
Only 3 percent of nonvoters said a more convenient process to register would motivate them to vote in more elections.
That finding may be important to the numerous groups fighting to increase voter turnout by combating structural barriers to voting. Voter suppression has been a hot-button issue in recent years, boiling over during the 2018 elections as voters cried foul with long lines, faulty machinery and massive voter purges.
Leading up to the 2020 elections, Democrats in particular have highlighted the issue, opposing largely Republican-led efforts to create stricter laws for access to the polls. Among the most high-profile activists is former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who stepped back from serving in elected office to advocate for greater access to the polls.
The 2018 race between Abrams and then-Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp gained national attention after Kemp purged over 600,000 from voter rolls, allegedly for not having voted in recent elections. Abrams’ supporters have called the purge a blatant act of voter suppression.
The election has since led Abrams to launch Fair Fight, an organization dedicated to fighting voter suppression. The organization works in 20 states training staffers to combat voter suppression and to register voters and raise awareness of election reforms.
Other groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Brennan Center for Justice and the League of Women Voters have taken legal action to stop laws they view as unfairly blocking voters from the polls. They also work to influence lawmakers to reform voting laws and use the courts to ensure those protections are fully enforced.
Abrams did not respond to requests for comment, and the organizers of other groups said they didn’t want to directly respond to an embargoed survey they couldn’t review. But some organizers said it didn’t surprise them that nonvoters would cite other reasons for not pursuing a chance to vote, being reluctant to admit that they don’t know or couldn’t follow the rules.
“Asking people to draw the causal link between a legal regime and their behavior, I think, is difficult, and I don’t know if it’s the most reliable way to figure out how laws affect human behavior,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU voting rights project.
Structural issues such as voter ID laws and difficulty accessing polling places didn’t come up enough to even be marked in the Knight survey results. In fact, 89 percent of voters, 76 percent of nonvoters and 69 percent of young people aged 18-24 found voting either very or somewhat easy.
Young voters aged 18-24 reflected a similar sentiment to nonvoters at large, with 28 percent of those not registered saying they weren’t due to a lack of interest.
Responses were open-ended with respondents coming up with their own answers for pollsters.
But the lack of focus on legal obstacles to voting shouldn’t serve as encouragement for those seeking to impose further restrictions, advisers to the study maintained. Political scientists have a general consensus that asking nonvoters to explain their actions is not an effective way to measure voter suppression, painting a far more nuanced image of the issue.
“To find out the effects of [restrictive voting laws], you really don’t want to ask voters about it. They really don’t have a feel of how institutions’ rules affect them,” said Eitan Hersh, a political science professor at Tufts University who advised the study.
Though the laws dictating voter registration play a major role in blocking people from turning out, voters generally see them as the background conditions for their decisions, and they rarely identify them as dictating their political decisions over faith in a candidate or an issue, activists said.
“I suspect when voters make the conscious decision to go to the polls … they’re not saying, ‘Well, because the polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., I was able to vote this year,’” Ho said. “They think, ‘Oh, I really care about this midterm,’ and, if it works in their schedule, they go.”
Yanna Krupnikov, another adviser to the Knight survey and a political science professor at Stony Brook University, added that nonvoters may feel social pressure to offer more philosophical explanations of why they stayed home, rather than admit that the voting system was too complicated.
“When there are so many social messages that people get to vote, to turn out, about how important that is, it becomes even harder to give a reason for not voting that seems random or spontaneous or not good enough,” Krupnikov said.
But Hersh said that no matter how many other factors actually contribute to nonvoters opting to stay home from the polls, the reasons respondents themselves identified shouldn’t be lightly dismissed.
When asked what could motivate them to vote in more elections, a plurality of nonvoters cited “a candidate I believe in” with 22 percent. Seven percent of nonvoters said they would vote more often “If my vote would affect the outcome.”
One nonvoter in Milwaukee who participated in a focus group cited by the study said she didn’t vote because of a “lack of interest, uneducated. The times that I’ve spent to get a little bit more educated, all the options suck. I don’t feel like one is great so I’m not going to vote at all.”
And just because structural barriers to voting are not forefront in voters’ minds doesn’t mean they don’t have a major impact.
Ho points out that states with more accessible voting infrastructure — particularly election-day registration — routinely have higher turnout than states that don’t. Minnesota, New Hampshire and Iowa all have election-day registration and had substantially higher turnout rates than the national average in 2016 — in some cases by greater than 10 percentage points.
Among nonvoters in the Knight study, 7 percent said they didn’t register because they’d forgotten — a problem that could have been remedied with election-day registration.
Ho also added that the United States is singular among advanced democracies in placing the onus for registering to vote on citizens rather than the government. In countries where the state registers voters, registration is substantially higher, with 91 percent registration in Canada and 96 percent in Sweden versus only 70 percent in the U.S. in 2016.
Six percent of nonvoters in the Knight study said they didn’t register because they’d recently moved. Ho pointed out that the U.S. is unique among advanced democracies in requiring citizens to re-register to vote when they move, making voting even less accessible.
“I don’t have any reason to think that Americans are more helpless or apathetic than people who live in other Western democracies,” Ho said. “So that makes me ask: What else is different about our systems? And the first thing I think of is how byzantine our registration systems are.”
Helping navigate those systems is among the top priorities of activists encouraging higher voter participation.
Speaking with POLITICO in November, Abrams said a major method to combating voter suppression is warning constituents about potential purges and letting them know how to to contest them. Abrams led a massive phone banking operation in November to warn voters in Georgia about a potential purge that drew then-Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang.
Jeanette Senecal, senior director of mission impact at the League of Women Voters, stressed that many would-be first-time voters especially don’t turn out to the polls because they aren’t aware of early voting opportunities. And those first-time voters may not realize just how difficult it can be to register and turn out.
“It’s really important to do some education, especially for new and first-time voters, around what the early voting opportunities are for them,” Senecal said. “And they wouldn’t know that’s an institutional barrier … But in reality, not knowing what their options are is a barrier.”