Voter apathy is not a given

Dana Chisnell, Co-Executive Director of the Center for Civic Design, is a pioneer in civic design. She was in the founding cohort of the United States Digital Service in the Obama White House. She teaches election design at University of Minnesota and design in government at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

When you look at the statistics for voter turnout in the U.S., the numbers show that nearly 40% of the voting-eligible population doesn’t bother to show up for presidential elections, and around 70% can’t be troubled to vote in midterm and off-year elections. It’s worse for local elections where it’s not uncommon to see single-digit turnout — so, theoretically, more than 90% of voters are apathetic about what is happening in their own backyards.

The political parties seek to persuade registered voters who are undecided, and the assumption is that if those people don’t vote, it’s because they didn’t care enough to make up their minds. Voter apathy is a given.

But hundreds of interviews conducted by my team at the Center for Civic Design over the last 15 years with people who are eligible to vote suggest that voter apathy may be a myth. We think that nearly everyone really does care about voting. A lot. And they feel shame for not voting. One hint is that the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau every 2 years, consistently shows that about 10% more people say they voted in the most recent election than the actual number of those who did. People lie about having voted.

Our data supports a theory that people want to vote. But when people describe their experiences trying to vote, there are so many decisions to make and so many obstacles to overcome that many people give up trying.

For a privileged voter, sure, the process is pretty frictionless. You have the advantages of time, money, education, and access to information that you can easily read and understand. You probably also have geographic stability. As a privileged voter, you live in a place where you have relatively easy access to reliable, authoritative, nonpartisan information about what’s on the ballot, who is running (and for what), and when and where the polls are open. You probably don’t need a voter ID, and you can vote by mail without an excuse. You might even have easy early voting available.

Some of your privilege also comes from knowing something about how government works. You can easily make the inferences about which issues and policies are important to you and which aren’t, and how changes will affect your life and the lives of those around you.

But most U.S. voters experience voting as a test. And they have a lot of questions, many of which are not easily answerable. Here’s what it’s like for people who are challenged for time, money, and access to information:

You find out late that there’s an election. (You might not even be aware that there are elections besides presidential elections.) Your first big question is, what’s on the ballot? We think this question is likely a distillation of a deeper subconscious question: is there anything on the ballot that I care enough about to invest my time and energy? What will be different for me, my family, or my friends because of the outcome of the election?  

It’s hard to find information about the candidates and questions on their ballot, let alone how those candidates’ policies or the ballot questions will affect your life. As a burdened voter you are likely to be someone who moves a lot. You don’t even know where to begin looking for information in your new town. If you moved to an underserved jurisdiction, your local election website isn’t likely to have much to help you. And it probably isn’t written in plain language.

After all of that, let’s say you decide you do want to vote. Our data suggests that the next big questions are around how to participate. What are your options? This gets interesting, because well-intentioned policies around what is called “convenience voting” introduce more homework and more decisions to make. “Convenience voting” is a class of policies implemented to make more options available for voters to take part. For example, no-excuse absentee voting and early voting, in theory, make it easier for more people to get a ballot and cast it. And, because people are vaguely aware that options might exists, the availability of these options raise more questions: Do I have to vote at the polling place on election day? Can I go somewhere else at some other time? Can I vote by mail or online? What are the deadlines for applying for an absentee ballot? How do I apply? What are the days and times for early voting?

It’s at this point that people start to think about registration (though in some cases the first series of steps are so time consuming that the voter registration deadline may have passed). In most states you must be registered ahead of time. If you moved within a month of election day, now you have to find out if you can register in time, locally, or if you need to vote absentee where you just moved from.

Any one of these decisions can be a point at which someone who is time-taxed could drop out of the process. If you make it through the first step, that burden doesn’t go away. Instead, it feels like you’ve made it through a low barrier that leads to a series of ever higher barriers. Every obstacle is cumulative––a constant piling on of work, navigating bureaucracy, and finding answers to oblique questions.

Add to all of this the buzz of foreign governments hacking the information ecosystem, and it’s not hard to see why people give up, even though they feel bad about it. Most people aren’t apathetic. They’re worn out because the overall system exhausts their personal resources for taking part.

What does a system look like that removes friction and obstacles (and sets up an auditable, recountable election)? First, it includes a modern, automatic, voter registration system so that most people never even have to think about registering. For those who haven’t been able to register, same-day registration is easily available. Next, official, plain language information is sent along with a ballot to every eligible person (even better if it is available in multiple languages). Those ballots come with pre-paid postage, and voters can slip them into one of the many drop boxes in their neighborhood. Voters who want to go in person can visit any vote center to turn in their marked ballot, get a new ballot if they made a mistake on the one they received in the mail, or cast their vote in person. After they’ve voted, people are able to easily track their ballots through to the tallied results.

We know this model works, because it exists in multiple states. Oregon implemented it first. Washington state has its variation. Colorado is the most recent state to begin conduct elections this way. Parts of California are implementing frictionless voting in 2018, with more joining in 2020. For those working in and around government, you need to show up to remove the friction and lower the barriers where you are. Study those systems and processes, learn how they’re organized, and work on bringing them to your neighborhood. Don’t wait for the legislation to pass. Work on getting it passed. Don’t sit at home and tweet about how annoyed you are at the current state of voting in this country. Go out and flip the turnout numbers.