Why we don’t vote

Photo by Vox Efx.
Photo by Vox Efx.

Sunday’s Tulsa Word featured a series of short articles by nine Tulsans explaining why they vote. These citizens spoke eloquently of their sense of civic obligation and responsibility. They spoke of the hard struggles that prior generations had fought to earn the right to vote for women and African-Americans, and of the journeys from distant lands their ancestors had traveled to gain the privileges of a free and democratic society.  They spoke of the importance of elections to ensure that they have a voice and that their representatives are held accountable.

And yet the World may have been asking the wrong question of the wrong people. In 2010, the last Gubernatorial election, less than half of Oklahoma’s eligible voters – 40.4 percent – cast a ballot. In 2014, turnout is likely to be even lower. When a majority of citizens don’t turn out to select their Governors, Congressmen, and other top state and federal elected officials, the question that most urgently needs to be asked may not be “Why I vote” but rather “Why I don’t vote.”

It’s fair to assume that most of the readers of this blog vote most of the time, at least in statewide and national elections. It’s easy for us to look at voting as simple, natural, and important. But most of us are also well-educated and well-informed about politics and policy. We know at least a little about the offices that are on the ballot and what these officeholders do.  There’s a good chance that we personally know at least some of the candidates we’re voting for (and against). Most of us have stable work and family situations and reliable transportation. We know where to vote, or which websites to check if we don’t. Most of our family members and friends are also reliable voters, and our inboxes and Facebook feeds are filled with reminders and exhortations from them to get to the polls.

These conditions simply don’t apply for a substantial share of the population. The Census Bureau conducts a biannual survey of voting and registration and reports on voting rates by various demographic characteristics. It also asks those who did not register or did not vote to explain why.  Based on this research, as well as anecdotal evidence from conversations and written accounts, here’s what the Tulsa World, or another paper, might have heard if they spoke to people who aren’t going to vote today:

  • I just don’t have time. I’m a single working mom. I work all day and then I’ve got to pick up kids from daycare and run my errands and then get dinner on the table and by the time dinner is done, it’s after 7:00.
  • I was planning to vote but my car broke down over the weekend and I don’t have any way to get to the polls.
  • We just moved into a new apartment and I never got around to switching my registration from my last apartment, so I can’t vote.
  • I forgot to go vote this morning and then I didn’t get off work until after the polls had closed.
  • I just found out last week that I have to be out of town, and I didn’t have enough time to get an absentee ballot.
  • I just moved to Oklahoma. I don’t really feel like I know much about what’s going on.
  • I only started to pay attention to the election in the last couple of weeks, but by then I’d already missed the deadline to register.
  • I’ve got some serious health problems that have been bothering me of late and I’m just not well enough to get out to the polling station.
  • I don’t know anything about most of the candidates.
  • The weather was terrible.
  • All I’ve heard about any of the candidates is from those 30-second TV ads and I don’t like any of them.
  • I’m a Libertarian and there are no Libertarian candidates on the ballot in Oklahoma.
  • It’s just not something I do. No one in my family votes and none of  my friends or co-workers vote, so I just don’t give elections any attention.
  • I was going to vote but I realized I left my ID at home, so I came back home and by then it was too late.
  • I’m out of prison on parole but I still have a few years left of my sentence so I’m not eligible to vote.
  • I’m a student and it doesn’t seem like any of the candidates are talking about issues that matter to me.
  • The candidates are all the same, and no matter who wins, nothing will change.

Some of these reasons for not voting may seem more persuasive or valid than others (Oklahoma employers, for example, are legally required to give their workers time to go vote, but only with advance notice; voters without ID can cast provisional ballots). Some relate to deep-seated attitudes of political distrust, cynicism, and alienation, while others stem from various barriers and obstacles to voting that get thrown up to turn potential voters into non-voters. In a recent blog post, we looked at some of the institutional barriers to voting in Oklahoma, and we will soon be releasing an extensive issue brief laying out options for revitalizing electoral participation in the state. Extending the opportunities for early and absentee voting, and allowing more candidates on the ballot, could be especially promising avenues of reform. Until then, we should continue to  be active voters and engaged citizens, while being respectful of the many reasons so many of our fellow citizens may be sitting this election out.

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Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

5 thoughts on “Why we don’t vote

  1. It’d be interesting to see some demographic data behind these reasons. For instance, I’d like to know if apathy or indifference / dis-connectedness of local/state politics from every day experience is particular to younger potential voters. I’d be interested in lack of a family or culture of voting is prevalent in certain neighborhoods, or among certain racial groups.

    I’d be curious what policies (inflexible early & absentee voting options, restrictive voter id laws, lack of voting materials in languages other than english, etc.) have the most negative impact. There was a “get out the youth vote” campaign in Tulsa during the last mayoral election, but it’d have been nice to have coupled it with some real data-driven understanding of WHY youth voter turnout has been historically low in the past decade.

  2. I cant believe I just read this statement: “here’s what the Tulsa World, or another paper, might have heard if they spoke to people who aren’t going to vote today…” Seriously? We’re just making up news now? This reminds me of an episode of Family Guy where they were showing a news report about a plane crash. The anchor showed a video and said “here’s what the crash WOULD have looked like if the plane had crashed into a school for bunnies.”

  3. Contrary to Ron, I think a discussion about why people do not vote is a very important one. The ideas presented here are not presented as “news;” the Tulsa World poll is just a jumping off point for this discussion.

    A few ideas about additional possible motives for not voting:

    The only candidates with reasonable chances of winning the major races represent a party I don’t support. Most of the minor races are uncompetitive as well, and I don’t care as much about them to begin with.


    The candidates I support were clearly going to win by wide margins, making my vote unnecessary.

    Look at the margins of victory:
    Gov 15%
    LtGov 37%
    Labor 25%
    SEN1 39%
    SEN2 39%
    HR02 45%
    HR03 57%
    HR04 45%
    HR05 24%

    Even in the State Senate and House races there were very few that were decided by a margin less than 10 %.

    When the races are uncompetitive, the motive for voting decreases.

    Another possible reason: the candidates from the party I support are unimpressive or undesireable; they may be better than those from the other party, which is why that is my party of choice, but they are not good enough to get me to want to vote for them.

    Finally, those who prefer I not vote do a good job of making me believe the races are uncompetitive or drive me away from the polls through the kind of negative campaigning that make me not want to dirty myself with politics.

  4. I pride myself on heading to the polls every chance I get. I’ve even served as a poll worker in the past. However, I did not even know about the last primary election. I am disabled and have filed for bankruptcy, so I don’t get out of my house much. I do not watch network TV, nor TV news. I cannot afford a subscription to the Tulsa World. Almost all of my news and information comes from Facebook and related links. In my neighborhood (midtown Memorial), there were no yard signs or other indications of an upcoming election at primary time.

    On the November 4th election, I was aware and prepared to vote. However, I had to fight the inner voices saying, “None of my chosen candidates are going to win, why should I bother voting?” I was also dealing with the reality that even the candidates I was willing to vote for were spending more time in their campaigns showing they were like the opposition, rather than campaigning in support of the progressive issues that would make me a passionate voter.

    It is very hard to encourage others to vote when, other than casting a protest vote, there is no motivation for me to vote.

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