Why don’t more people vote?

vote button

In Front Porch Forum, on March 11, 2017, Andy Simon asked the question, “Why don’t more people vote?” Since then, there have been a bunch of responses. Maybe this is the beginning of something! Here is Andy’s post and some of your responses:

Dear Neighbors,

I want to propose a non-partisan FPF discussion thread. The subject is: “Why do so few people vote?” or maybe “Why don’t more people vote?”

The figures from this week’s municipal election are arresting. City-wide, only 19.11% of registered Burlington voters cast a ballot. Look at it this way: 80.9% of REGISTERED voters failed to vote. Why?

Here is a breakdown of voter participation in Tuesday’s election in the eight city wards.

https://www.burlingtonvt.gov/sites/default/files/CT/ElectionResults/20170307/ELECTION_DETAILS_REPORT_20170307.pdf

Besides thoughts and opinions on this subject, maybe we could engage in some anecdotal FPF research. If you didn’t vote in the recent election, well, why not? Do you have friends or family members who didn’t vote? Ask them why and report back.

I think this is an important subject. If most citizens don’t participate in elections, how truly representative is our democracy? But that’s jumping ahead. Let’s just try to understand – together – why lots of people don’t vote.

Thanks for chiming in.

Andy

Your responses:

Is it possible to get a breakdown of non voters by age? Are some segments of our population more disengaged than others?

T.B.

Because frankly most people don’t care. Voting turnout in this country has always been an issue. Presidential election years get the highest turnout, while mid terms definitely don’t see the same numbers. So it isn’t surprising that town meeting day doesn’t see a high turnout, especially since the amount of coverage in the media is nothing compared to what you see during a presidential election year. People have been trying for decades to increase voting turnouts, especially in the 18 to 30 age. Had that age group voted in larger numbers it is very unlikely George W or Trump get elected. A younger voter turnout would have also hugely benefited Bernie in his run for the democratic nomination.

E.D.

Wow, this baffles me. That many people really don’t care? I just looked at the number of people who voted in the primary in Burlington – about 18%! The number in the general election was about 54%. And our town elections about 20%. That is shameful. I guess if we can’t do better than that, we get what we deserve. Oh, and that’s just percents of registered voters. I wonder how many aren’t registered. We can’t be a democracy if the people don’t vote. It’s as simple as that. I’m not pointing a finger at anyone, just saying maybe there’s a solution out there. What can we start doing to double those numbers? Any ideas?

T.S.

think this is a great question, though it certainly isn’t limited to Burlington. For at least forty years voting participation in democratic countries has been pretty poor and in state/municipal/local elections especially low. In most major cities in the US you’d be lucky if you got to 20% of the registered voters actually turning out for a mayoral race (NYC, Los Angeles and Chicago are all around 15% I think). As to why, I don’t think it’s just a generational thing — I think it’s a breakdown of trust and accountability in many ways, combined with sometimes real or perceived disincentives to vote. I think especially when voting alone seems to be the limit of democratic participation it cheapens the actual exercise of voting. Interestingly, I saw voter participation rise dramatically in Toronto where I lived several years ago — but only after some disastrous experiences with electing a mayor who was a complete train wreck — voting rose from 20% to nearly 60% in the last election. Hopefully we don’t have to hit rock bottom before such increases are seen in other cities. There are other municipalities which make a specific target for voter participation and put resources into getting higher turnout, not just making comments to encourage doing so. We might also take some guidance from places with much more fragile democracies or more recent acquisition of the right to vote, where participation is often in the high 80s.

P.B.

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time. I don’t understand why more people aren’t voting. I’m really concerned that such a small percentage of the people of our city voted OR that such a large percent didn’t. This is definitely not right. How can anyone say “this is what the people of Burlington want”? Maybe it’s the hours? Maybe it’s the day of the week, maybe younger people just can’t be bothered, it’s not attractive enough to them or perhaps i’se that our population is older and unable. Or it’s just plain apathy. I wonder if it could done online or on a cellphone,,, if the results would be better? How could we be sure it was safe, secure and accurate? Hopefully there is a workable answer.

C.S.

I did vote in the election but my wife, who normally does, did not. She had intended to, but got involved in a big work project in the late afternoon and by the time she came home, the polls had closed. I think if pressed, she would say that had the election been higher stakes for her, personally, voting would have been more of a priority and she would have made the time, despite the inconvenience, but this particular election was low-stakes for her, comparatively speaking.

All the usual caveats apply too — voting is priority for us, so we do it nine elections out of ten, but it could be made easier and more foregrounded in people’s brains in a number of ways. For example, Tuesday elections are just dumb. Why aren’t we voting on the weekend when most people are not at work? Could we have simple mail-in ballots (I know there is a mail in option but why can’t every registered voter be mailed a ballot)? And far be it from me to question long-standing Vermont traditions, but maybe city elections could happen in November, when it’s easier to get folks to the polls and pay attention because of larger state and national races?

I agree we need much better turn out — these seem like some simple, nonpartisan steps to improve the percentages.

That’s my 2 cents. Thanks for starting the conversation.

W.S.

andy !

you asked why no one votes.

have u looked at your tax bill?

if u don’t own property, have u looked at your lease?

the definition of insanity is repeating the same defeating behavior and expecting a different result.

people aren’t stupid. they are, however, cynical. they know changing the personnel behind the council table isn’t worth the effort.

also, for what it’s worth, u surmise that increasing voter turnout would change the result in your favor. 

if voter turnout had doubled, joan shannon would have received proportionately just as many votes.

speaking of cynicism – how about that council pay hike? the joan shannons of this world aren’t running for the $5k a year. she’s on the council to benefit her real-estate business. exposure. 

look at your tax bill!

T.C.

Hi Andy, yes, I did add a little note on FPF.  I strongly think there needs to be a more critical understanding of why people don’t vote — there’s a tendency to simply say that it’s irresponsibility (especially amongst more middle class members of the electorate who already vote) without recognizing the different ways in which so many people feel disenfranchised especially in local elections regardless of whether they have the actual legal right to vote.  And it also doesn’t recognize the ways in which entrenched interests also often make it very difficult for people (especially those that they see as outside of their “traditional” power base) to vote.  

Best,

P.B.

Thanks for initiating the conversation, I’m glad it’s taking place.  I think so few people actually have an opportunity to engage in democratic practices in their daily lives that when it’s reduced only to an every four-year, two-year or even an annual vote, it might seem kind of pointless.  That still speaks volumes about the broken nature of electoral politics and the disenfranchisement of so many people than it does about the lack of “personal responsibility” in voting.  I am not saying there’s no blame to be apportioned but it’s way out of whack with what is actually going on.

I can’t vote in local elections; in fact I can’t vote anywhere at present.  I’m a green card holder who never contemplated giving up my Canadian citizenship; I voted regularly in the Canadian national, provincial and local elections ever since leaving Canada in 2006, though one of the last acts of the Stephen Harper government was to disenfranchise overseas Canadians like myself.  If I do want to vote I will have to wait another two years, get US citizenship and then vote.  My own experience with more effective and democratic practices have mostly been in unions or grassroots organizations; I think these two would be good models to look at in the range of alternatives you’re collecting,

Best,

P.B.

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