The United States has a long and complex history with the right to vote. It was only in 1965 when African Americans and other minorities were given the right to vote with the passing of Voting Rights Acts. Despite the changes in voter eligibility over 50 years ago, the United States continues to have one of the lowest voter participation rates in comparison to other developed countries. In fact, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, United States ranked 26 out of 32 developed countries when it comes to voter participation. In 2016 nearly half of eligible voters in the United States, approximately 117 million people, did NOT vote. Why is this?

The first and most significant barrier in the U.S. political system is voter registration. A 2012 Pew study reported that 51 million U.S. citizens were not registered to vote. In many democracies the government automatically registers citizens. For example, 91% of Canadians are registered to vote versus 64% of Americans.

The second factor which predicts Americans’ voting behavior is their income level. A recent NPR article states “class is a more accurate predictor of voting behavior than race, ethnicity, gender or any other demographic factor,” and “that nearly 80 percent of high-income earners vote, compared to barely 50 percent of low-income Americans.”

The other predictor of voting behavior is age. Young people may feel less represented in the issues politicians focus on. In an NPR report young people shared that they do not understand their right to vote, or even how to do it. Further, many young people do not feel that voting is an effective way of changing the system.

Finally, there is apathy, burn-out, and disillusionment with the political system. Disillusionment with the current system was apparent in many of the survey responses the PRT received from people living in the Eastern Santa Cruz area. Though all 30 respondents said they plan to vote, a quarter of them found it hard to describe anything “exceptional” about the US political system.

Almost half of the respondents when asked what they would like to change about the system responded with eliminating gerrymandering (a process in which district lines are redrawn to give a particular political candidate an advantage in the election). Also half of the responses mentioned eliminating or reforming the Electoral College system. Some specifically stated overturning Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that currently allows corporations and unions to invest heavily in political campaigning.

Many respondents felt that voter turnout could be improved by making it easier to vote, making election day a national holiday, by using examples from other countries that have higher voter participation and by changing the two party system. One third of respondents wanted to make voting more accessible to increase participation from minorities and other marginalized groups.

Here are some more responses from our survey:

If you plan to or are likely to vote, why do you think it is important to vote?

“To hope to stem the tide of radical ideologies of fear, hatred, bigotry, prejudice, and the arrogant disregard for the very planet that gives us life.”
“It is both a privilege and a responsibility. In fact, I wish it were required as it is in other countries. The current situation underscores how important full participation is to ensure responsible and representative government.”
“Arizona is going to be a critical state in the upcoming election and beyond.”
“It’s the only way to have a government OF the people, BY the people, FOR the people.”
“I consider it a sacred responsibility as a citizen. I have never in 55 years of voting missed an election.”
“Participatory democracy ONLY works if you participate – and voting is participation at the most crucial level.”
“America can only thrive and grow if we take an active stand in support of the Constitution, our democracy and the truth!”