The epic journey of American voters
People care about elections. They actually care a great deal. In fact, almost everyone has a lot of feelings and thoughts about elections and whether and how to take part. Even people who don’t take part care. Some are even very passionate and excited about candidates and issues. In hearing from hundreds of voters through several research projects over the last 5 years at the Center for Civic Design, we’ve started to believe that “voter apathy” is not a real thing.
People care so much that they weigh the value of the outcomes with the costs of taking action. At dozens of points between learning that there is an election coming up to actually getting a ballot in hand, voters face hurdles and hindrances that, if the scales of trade offs are weighted against taking part, people drop out of voting. The 60% of eligible voters who do show up have overcome many obstacles.
In most of the U.S., getting to vote is not easy. Sure, it’s pretty straightforward to determine who is eligible: You must be a citizen of the United States and at least 18-years-old to cast a ballot in federal elections. But after that, there’s very little that is straightforward about U.S. elections.
We wanted to learn about the paths that voters take and the pitfalls they encounter in a study we conducted leading up to the presidential election in 2012. We wondered what questions people had about voting and elections leading up to Election Day. We also wanted to understand what election officials thought was important for voters to know.
The expected path
When we look at election websites it’s clear that there is an expected, chronological process: You register to vote, and then figure out your options for taking part, then do your homework about who the candidates are and what’s on the ballot. Then you vote.
But voters don’t think the same way that election officials do.
The voter process: Weighing tradeoffs with every step
Voters don’t start at the beginning of the chronological process. Voters start with the question, What’s on the ballot?
We think that what they’re really asking is something like, What is important enough about this election for me to invest time and energy? What will happen in this election that will affect me and people I’m close to so much that I should do whatever it takes to vote? They’re asking, Is it worth the effort?
The second part of our study in 2012 gave us a chance to ask 40 voters what questions they had about the upcoming election. Then we observed as they tried to find answers to their questions on their local election department websites. In 2013 through 2015, we interviewed more than 100 first-time and low-propensity voters to understand their information needs. Then, leading up to the 2016 presidential election, we followed 50 voters through their processes for getting informed about that election for about 8 weeks.
Across those studies, the picture we’ve started to put together shows
- voters don’t follow the expected process as they decide whether and how to take part in elections
- there is wide variation in ease (or difficulty) voters experience depending on where in the U.S. they are.
People are making rational (but mostly unconscious) decisions about the benefits of taking part and the potential value of outcomes to them against the costs of time, money, attention, decision-making, and relative hassle.
This behavior isn’t unique to voting. Humans do this with practically every decision they make. They explicitly or implicitly ask themselves: is it worth it. It’s called behavioral economics.
But in elections, for activists, advocates, and political campaigns, the common wisdom is that there are 3 types of voters. There are voters who have decided, those who have not, and those who don’t care. So campaigns channel their efforts into two big pushes: registering everyone, and getting everyone except the ones who don’t care to turn out to vote.
There are some big assumptions built into those pushes. First, that people know enough to decide. Second, that people just need to show up at the polling place. Our research shows that it’s actually a lot more complicated than that.
Obstacles, hurdles, and hindrances
The way we talk about the process leaves a lot out. Voting isn’t as easy as 1, 2, 3. There are more steps than most privileged voters think about. At each of those steps, voters weigh tradeoffs.
In the happiest of paths to voting the way one intends, the recipe starts with a family member or someone else who is an influencer who took you in hand and showed you how voting works and what it’s like in the polling place. The next important ingredient is that you are geographically stable. (If you move house, an entire cascade of steps unfolds to get to vote.) This geographic stability also suggests that it will be relatively easy for you to find out about changes in the voting process, and your polling place is less likely to change. Because there are few barriers, you probably vote more often than the national average.
The happy path
The more frequently you vote, the less intimidating the process is, overall. But still, your happy path does not match the expected path that election officials lay out as a chronological process. Your process looks more like this:
- You hear about an election coming up. You’re already wondering what’s on the ballot, and if you live in the 9% of jurisdictions that send information directly to voters ahead of elections, a voter guide with a sample ballot in it arrives in your mailbox.
- You have habits. Maybe you vote by mail so your ballot comes to you. Or you really like going to your neighborhood polling place. So this decision isn’t so hard.
- Because you vote regularly, you know where your polling place is.
- You don’t need to learn how to mark your ballot. You’ve done it plenty of times.
- You’re prepared. You may even have marked a vote-by-mail ballot, or you’ve made a list of how you want to vote. Marking your ballot is easy.
- Because you’re curious and invested in the outcomes, you want to know the results. Maybe you checked the local paper, or maybe you went to your county election website.
This path is pretty much the ideal. The decisions to be made are options to choose from, none of which present much friction.
The burdened path of challenges and friction
If you are someone who has moved at the wrong time, or moves often, haven’t voted before or it’s been a long time, and you aren’t connected to someone who can guide, influence, and teach you about voting, your path will be far rougher.
The obstacles you encounter without basic civic literacy and experience can be huge and costly. The order of steps you go through will be similar to the happy path. But there are far more things to learn and to make decisions about. The burden accumulates across the experience, too. Even as you overcome challenges early in the process, the frustration that accompanies each victory stays and piles up. Even for someone who is tenacious, the burdened voter must have incredible grit and motivation to make it through the many hurdles.
Voters in our studies met hurdles in learning about
- Dates, times, and deadlines that they either didn’t know about or had missed.
- Information access about what’s on the ballot, and when and where elections are held in plain language (and in some cases, their language), how to register, how to get voter ID.
- When and where they can vote.
- Where they can get information in their language or how to get voter ID.
Even after gathering all the information, they had to juggle the logistics of voting against daily routines and the demands of work and family.
So, if you’re the burdened voter, your path looks more like this one:
- You still start by trying to learn what’s on the ballot, and weighing whether it is worth taking part. But it’s harder to find out. No official information comes to you, the local websites are likely to be unhelpful, and you probably don’t read the local newspaper. Without information about what is on the ballot, you are likely to just wipe your mind of the idea of voting. But let’s say you manage to learn that something important to you is happening. And you find enough information about it that you’re ready to commit.
- What are your options for voting? Do you have to vote at the polls on Election Day? Either early voting doesn’t exist where you live, or maybe you missed the early voting days. Or the hours of early voting would mean you’d have to take time out of your job to go vote. Or, maybe you could apply for an absentee ballot. What do you need for that? And have you missed that deadline? But wait, you have to have an approved excuse, and missing work isn’t one of them. There are no real options.
- Looks like you’re voting at the polling place on Election Day. But where is the polling place? You manage to find out by looking it up on the Web, but it is far away from work (being determined by your home address), which makes it inconvenient to vote on the way to work or on the way home. You’ll have to plan ahead for transit and extending day care or getting a babysitter for the kids.
- In the meantime, you hear a lot of buzz about voter ID. Turns out that in your state, you need one. You don’t drive, so you don’t have other reasons to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles, but you find one that is open on your day off, and you get an approved voter ID. Yay! You’re committed, but this voter ID comes with costs. There is no fee for the ID, itself, but what a way to spend your day off.
- But now you move house, from one county to another. This means you must update your voter registration. If only you could have done that while you were at then DMV. But you didn’t have the documentation you needed, yet, to prove your residency in the county. Unfortunately, in your new county, you can’t do it all online. You have to print out a form, fill it in, sign it, and send it back to the elections office. Do you have a printer? When are you going to find time to go to the post office to get the correct postage? Do you even have an envelope? These are small but costly frictions that cause many people to drop out. But not you.
- Election Day! At your polling place! It’s full of people — your new neighbors — and you step through the process: find your precinct or district, check in at the registration desk, and get a ballot. But there’s another set of surprises: The ballot is much longer than you expected and you’re not entirely sure how to mark the ballot to signify your choices. Can you research the contests you didn’t know about before from your phone while you’re in the voting booth? Can you ask someone about how to mark the ballot? What if you make a mistake? What if you don’t vote on all of the contests? Will your ballot still be counted?
It’s all pretty stressful, scary, and overwhelming. After this experience, are you more likely to vote in the next election because you have overcome? Or face the next election with dread? Even though you manage to cast a ballot in this election, the overall experience has not been the kind that inspires someone to love voting.
If there is apathy, it comes from the system not the voter
Most of us think about “voter apathy” as something that applies to other people who aren’t interested or concerned about civic life — or they believe that their votes won’t matter. So get-out-the-vote campaigns focus on trying to convince people that their votes do count, and that their voices do matter.
Our research shows that the people who don’t care are very few. Deep down, almost everyone does care about voting, and they feel shame for not doing it.
The real problem is that voting in America is just hard.
The burdens are costly and the frustration of overcoming them is cumulative. As people weigh the tradeoffs between taking part in a process that is difficult against a possible but unknowable future that they might influence — well, it’s not that they don’t care. It’s that they are making rational decisions (that they may not even be aware of) at every step, weighing what they care about, right now.