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.