With Election Day tomorrow, many of us are busily getting prepared to exercise one of our basic civic rights by attending candidate forums, poring over election guides, studying the seven state ballot measures, and reviewing sample ballots.  But many Oklahomans — close to half — will likely not vote on November 8th. Who are these non-voters, why aren’t they voting, and what can we do about it?

Who Doesn’t Vote

Four years ago, just 51.3 percent of voting-age Oklahomans cast a ballot in the Presidential election, one of the lowest turnout rates in the nation. Two years ago, turnout in Oklahoma and nationally fell to its lowest level in decades, with fewer than one in three (32.3 percent) of eligible voters in this state casting a ballot in the contest for Governor and other state and federal races. Nationally, turnout in the 2014 midterm elections was just 41.9 percent of the voting-age population.

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The demographic profile of the voting population can be distinguished from the non-voting population in many ways. Perhaps foremost among these is age. In the 2012 Presidential election, there was a 31 point gap in turnout between the oldest voting group, those ages 65 and older (69.7 percent turnout) and the youngest, those ages 18-24 (38.0 percent turnout), according to an analysis  by the U.S. Census Bureau. In midterm elections, the electorate skews even older. While the youngest voters have had the lowest turnout rate in every Presidential election since the voting age was lowered to 18, it is only recently that elderly Americans have consistently voted at the highest rates.

The national pattern of young voter non-participation is even more pronounced in Oklahoma. In 2012, just 27.1 percent of citizens ages 18-24 voted, the third lowest rate in the nation. In 2014, turnout was a dismal 11.8 percent for Oklahomans aged 18-24 and 20.9 percent for those ages 25-44, according to Census Bureau survey data.  As the chart shows, turnout rose steadily with age, peaking at over 50 percent among those age 75 and older.

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Along with young people, several other demographic groups are less likely to vote. In the 2014 midterm elections, non-voters nationally were likeliest to be:

  • Hispanics and Asians (27 percent turnout, compared to 46 percent for Whites and 41 percent for Blacks);
  • Unemployed (30 percent turnout, compared to 57 percent of government workers and 39 percent of those employed in private industry);
  • Less educated (less than 25 percent turnout of those without a high school diploma, compared to over 50 percent for those with a college degree);
  • Low income (less than one-third turnout of those with annual income under $30,000, compared to over 50 percent for those with income over $75,000);
  • Transient (25 percent turnout of those with residency under 1 year, compared to 57 percent with residency of 5 years or longer).

These characteristics are closely interconnected and clustered. Those with less education are likelier to be unemployed and earn less; those with less income are likelier to be transient; young adults are likelier to have less income and be more transient (but not be less educated). The most anomalous statistics may be those involving race and ethnicity: Blacks vote at higher rates and Asians vote at lower rates than one might expect based on their socio-economic levels. 

Why Don’t They Vote?

We might imagine that most non-voters stay home on Election Day because they don’t like the candidates on the ballot or are fed up or disgusted with the political process. There may be more of that this year given the nastiness of the Presidential campaign and the high level of unpopularity of the two major party candidates, but historically this isn’t the main reason people fail to turn out.

When registered voters who did not cast a ballot in November 2012 were asked to explain why they hadn’t voted, a majority cited some kind of procedural obstacles, such as too busy or conflicting schedules (18.9 percent), illness or disability (14.0 percent), out of town (8.6 percent), registration problems (5.5 percent), forgot to vote (3.9 percent), transportation problems (3.3 percent), or inconvenient polling place (2.7 percent). Only about one in eight (12.7 percent) said they did not like the candidates or campaign issues, while 15 percent said they were not interested. Among those who are not even registered to vote, a 2008 survey found that almost half (46.0 percent) said they are not interested in the election or not involved in politics. Even among the non-registered, procedural reasons were often involved, with voters failing to meet the registration deadline (14.7 percent), not knowing where or how to register (4.2 percent), or being hampered by a permanent illness or disability (6.1 percent).

What Can Be Done?

The fact that a majority of non-voters don’t vote due to procedural issues rather than out of apathy or antipathy means we have clear options to improve voter turnout. In our 2014 issue brief, “Repairing Oklahoma’s Broken Democracy,” OK Policy discussed over a dozen options for boosting electoral participation. Among the most promising ideas are providing for permanent absentee ballot status, extending early voting, allowing same-day voter registration, publishing and distributing voter information pamphlets, and eliminating voter identification requirements. Oklahoma has made some progress recently in passing laws allowing for online voter registration (which is still being implemented), consolidating election dates, and making it easier for third-party candidates to get on the ballot. Ultimately, however, the greatest challenge will be to find ways to reinvigorate our democracy so as to convince those who are disconnected from the political system that voting is important and that their vote matters.