About 100 million people, almost half of the eligible voting population in America, did not cast a vote in the 2016 presidential election, according to a new study.
The study reveals that the demographics of people who don’t vote, or non-voters, are varied. There is no one-size-fits-all description of the people who choose to not participate, or a singular reason why. Non-voters are fairly evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and independent voters, and they come from differing education backgrounds and income levels.
But there are certain barriers that affect specific groups of voters, particularly those in rural areas, those who do not speak English fluently and those who live on indigenous tribal land.
Experts from across the United States addressed these issues during an event in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, hosted by the news outlet Politico and the Knight Foundation, an organization that encourages individuals to be engaged in civic duties, such as voting.
Kristal Knight, political director for the organization Priorities USA, said polling locations can change and people in rural communities are not always properly notified.
Voting rules can also change from year to year. Voters may show up to the polls but not have the right identification items with them.
Without the right information, voting becomes a confusing process that may discourage people from showing up, Knight said. Dropping a child off at day care and other life responsibilities can also make it difficult for people to make time to vote.
Making Election Day a holiday or allowing early voting through mailed ballots can lower or remove barriers that keep segments of the population from voting, Knight said.
However, this does not mean non-voters aren’t passionate about the issues in their community. The study shows that 62% of people who don’t vote say they are well-versed in the news.
Fernand Amandi, principal of Bendixen & Amandi International, the firm that conducted the study, said the non-voters surveyed had “strongly held beliefs,” but there are other circumstances keeping them from the polls.
Yanna Krupnikov, a political science researcher at Stony Brook University, said people are more likely to vote when people in their networks vote. This could be people in their family, in their religious group or at their recreation center.
Often, those who don’t vote feel disengaged from society as a whole and “are less happy with their lives in general,” Krupnikov said.
“Reaching people who are pressure points in these communities” and encouraging them to vote could help show others it is a worthwhile endeavor to vote, and that their voice counts, Krupnikov said.
Colorado was the first state to use voting centers instead of the traditional neighborhood-based precincts. This means voters can cast their ballots on Election Day at any voting center in the jurisdiction that is convenient for them, regardless of their residential address.
Despite these benefits, the traditional civic experience of voting with neighbors at a local school or other polling place is diminishing, which may discourage voter engagement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Voting centers have largely been popular for the state, but “rural people with long distances to drive might prefer having polling places closer at hand,” said Wendy Underhill with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But voters also have the option to mail in their ballot early.
The point of these changes is to “give people multiple choices,” Underhill said.
Trish Pegram, election judge for La Plata County, said mail-in ballots are a more effective way of getting ballots to and from voters no matter where they are.
“It’s got to be better and easier for people not living near voting centers,” Pegram said in a telephone interview.
Increasing voting access for indigenous communitiesThe U.S. House of Representatives is currently considering a bill that would increase voting access for indigenous communities. Many states require a physical address on ID cards, but many indigenous people have homes without a physical address.
The Native American Voting Rights Act would require states to accept tribal ID cards, place polling locations on tribal lands and require precincts to have agreement from the tribe before changing a polling location.
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold is also increasing the number of ballot drop boxes on tribal lands, as well as other rural and urban areas, in order to grow election participation.
The 43% of eligible voters who chose not to vote is a sizable minority, and their voice is not heard in what is meant to be a representative democracy, Amandi said of his firm’s new study.
“Campaigns need to meet voters where they are” to mobilize this untapped force of support, he said.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.