Brooke Gladstone: In advance of yesterday's primaries, some electoral anxieties of a slightly new variety.
Speaker 1: Some analysts say fears about the coronavirus could affect voter turnout.
Speaker 2: We're going to see a lot of very aggressive hygiene habits at the polls.
Brooke Gladstone: In the end, over three and a half million people voted, no appreciable decline in turnout there. Though, of course, the virus's impact is still relatively limited here in the US and even under the best of circumstances, over 40% of American citizens don't vote. In fact, in November, 2016, around 100 million eligible voters passed. That's more people who voted for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump and it might be even more than that since non-voter statistics seem often to be under-reported. Eitan Hersh, associate professor of political science at Tufts was an academic advisor on a new Knight Foundation study, The 100 Million Project. The untold story of American non-voters. It was the largest survey of chronic non-voters in history and it overturns some age-old conventional wisdom.
Eitan: I think there is a group of folks who think that the non-voters are disproportionately Democrats, disproportionately minority, disproportionately people who are not voting because of a lot of logistical burdens that they might have that the actual voting and registration process are difficult. I think that's one conventional view. I would say the conventional view among political scientists is a little bit different. It's that non-voters and voters are not as different as you might think.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's talk about non-voters, who are they?
Eitan: These are people if you look over a set of elections, like six elections, maybe they voted in one, but not more than one. They routinely fail to vote in big national federal elections. The way that we did the survey is that we separated those who have been in the electorate long enough to have engaged in those elections but chose not to and those are the non-voters and then we have people who tend to vote in most elections. Then we have this population of young people who they really haven't experienced enough elections that they appear either like a chronic voter or a chronic non-voter.
Brooke Gladstone: But you included them anyway, why?
Eitan: Their lives and their experience with politics is really, really different than older generations. Younger people increasingly into their late 20s or early 30s are somewhat nomadic. They're not tied down to communities, they're not marrying and having kids until later and so their experience in politics is not about being involved in community organizations and focusing on policy in their towns, even more so than older folks, they're focused on the National Presidential and Congressional Elections.
Brooke Gladstone: The researchers in the Knight Foundation study asked non-voters directly why they chose not to vote and they responded that the system was rigged, they didn't like the candidates. There were voter suppression efforts that were too hard to overcome. In this, again, you think that many of them may be dissembling?
Eitan: It's hard for people to reflect themselves why they don't participate. It's true, a lot of people who didn't vote say they don't like the candidates, but guess what? A lot of people who voted said they didn't like the candidates. A lot of people who don't vote think the system is rigged, but a lot of people who did vote think the system is rigged. It's easy to use these excuses as just that, as excuses rather than to think, I just didn't get around to it or it wasn't important enough to me. I think it's hard for a citizen to say on a survey, or even to another person, "I didn't vote because it's not important enough to me."
Brooke Gladstone: You also have a certain amount of skepticism when it comes to voter suppression, maybe for the same reasons some voters overcome it, some don't. You suggest that things are so much better than they used to be and the degree of non-voting hasn't gone down. Are they really better than they used to be though? We see all sorts of efforts in Republican statehouses to suppress the votes in new and innovative ways.
Eitan: I don't want to diminish the importance of those questions about voter suppression, but if you look over time, over say the last 30 years, what we've seen in the country is a lot of liberalization of election law.
Brooke Gladstone: A lot of the opposite as well in recent years, I'm talking about closing polls or invalidating ballots. I think Stacey Abrams of Georgia would disagree with you.
Eitan: Over a decade, what we've seen is polling places open later, more early voting, same-day registration, election centers, one after the other, a lot of ways that voting has become easier. Over that period of time, we have not seen that those logistical barriers, when they are removed, lead to higher participation rates. That has led a lot of political scientists overtime to think, okay, the main impediments to participation are not what we thought they were, which is like long registration deadlines or the polls are only open 9:00 to 5:00 because when communities change those laws, we don't see increases in turned out.
Brooke Gladstone: I think that you may be right that certainly, that would suggest that white voters would not have to overcome a lot of inconvenience, but these efforts are centered on communities of color and is that inflecting the data?
Eitan: Let me tell you about the scale of this because I spent about two years of my life as a voting rights expert for the Obama Justice Department when that department was engaged in lawsuits with the state of Texas over the Texas voter ID law. As a researcher, I was tasked with a colleague in estimating how many people don't have a voter ID, how many people of different races don't have a voter ID and what is the likely effect on participation. What we found very clearly and it was a really complicated analysis, we took every single person in Texas, we found their registration data, their driver's license, their passport, all the IDs that they might have.
In that situation, what we found is there is, for sure, a disproportionate effect on non-white voters, particularly African Americans, that African Americans in Texas were less likely to have an ID than whites. At the same time, we found that the scale of this was pretty low. That is most people, like 95% of people did have an ID. That's not to say that those issues aren't important, I think there was some pretty good evidence in that case that the law was purposely made as a discriminatory law and that we found the evidence that there was a discriminatory effect. At the same time, it was targeting a fairly narrow slice of the population.
I certainly do not want to be a voice saying that voter suppression efforts are not a big deal. I just wanted to make sure that the nuance came through, which is that I think they can be very damaging and oftentimes are illegal under the Voting Rights Act or ought to be and while they disproportionately do affect minorities and sometimes are targeted to do such, that's not what's going on for most people as the reason they're not voting.
Brooke Gladstone: I believe that non-voters in the study also suggested that they were reluctant to vote because they didn't feel well-informed about the candidates and the issues.
Eitan: Right, a lot of people especially on local elections, but even in national elections, it's not that they don't want to vote. It's that, they think about the names of the people on that list and they think, I don't know these names, I don't know these offices, I don't know what the state auditor does and I don't know who these people are running for something like that. This is less of a problem in a presidential election between a Democrat and a Republican, but we see this all the time in lower-tiered races where voters genuinely don't know what the races are about and who the contestants are.
Brooke Gladstone: You suggest that some of these people may be dissuaded by news junkies in their community who follow these races, both national and local like sports events and the non-voters don't feel like going to a ball game where they don't understand the rules or know the players.
Eitan: What's interesting about the Knight study is that you see that a lot of these non-voters, they're not all in these political deserts. They don't know people around them who vote. A lot of them do have friends who vote, but if you imagine you're a non-voter, you're not that interested in politics, it's not your thing and the people around you not only are voting, but they're talking obsessively about the details of healthcare plans and they're talking about really a [unintelligible 00:09:02] about election systems in Iowa, then you feel even more different from them than if they just were a voter, but didn't do much beyond voting.
Brooke Gladstone: A ton at first glance, this seems pretty alarming. 100 million people not voting in 2016, a larger swath of the electorate that voted for either party, but you don't see this as necessarily a political problem, right?
Eitan: Well, I don't necessarily see it as a governmental problem. I think a lot of people might look at this and say, we have to do something. We need to have some major systematic change to incorporate more people into the electorate. I think one response to that is, it's not the government's job. The government's job is to make voting easy and accessible to all and accessible equally among all swaths of the population. It's really the job of campaigns and political parties and civic organizations and neighborhood associations to make sure their neighbors participate and which of those groups are better organized and better informed and care more about getting their people to the polls, they deserve to win.
Brooke Gladstone: In Australia, you're fined, not a lot of money, if you don't vote. It isn't that for most people, that kind of fine is a hardship, but it seems to set a norm. You've done something wrong if you don't go to the polls, even if you don't strike a ballot when you get there.
Eitan: I would say I have to plug my colleague Anthony Fowler's research. He's done the best research on both Australia adopting universal election participation and also he's looked at this question United States. In both settings, the United States and Australia, there is this interesting finding, which is that even though the non-voters and voters don't look so different from one another, as voters are incorporated into election system, the system actually does tilt more liberal. In the United States, Fowlers found that the people who are closest to the cusp of voting, that is the non-voters most likely to be mobilized into voting are on the left disproportionately. In Australia, what he found is, when Australia made this historic change of having universal participation, the Labour Party did better.
I would say that as a policy here in the United States, one difference that United States has with many other countries, is that we have an excessive number of elections. Voters are expected to cast ballots, not only every other year for House and Senate and the President, but also for local elections in May and September. I think that universal participation would be a very big lift if we enforced it in all of our elections.
Brooke Gladstone: It's interesting about the liberal tilt, any theories about why?
Eitan: One theory of the world is that politics now disproportionally supports the preferences of deep-pocketed, wealthy individuals who are donating to campaigns and as more people are incorporated into electorate, more non-voters become voters, those voices become more important relative to the deep pockets of wealthy donors that might be able to dominate politics under lower turnout.
Brooke Gladstone: Leaving aside whether or not non-voters voting could have a big impact, we're still talking about a large part of the potential electorate whose voices simply aren't being heard. It seems like what we get is a feedback loop. Non-voters don't vote because politicians aren't speaking to them and their needs, because they don't vote, and on and on. How do we interrupt that cycle?
Eitan: To play devil's advocate, the other thing you can see in the data is that, if you look at the fact that non-voters and voters have pretty similar party affiliations, similar preferences about the president and about policies, you might say, oh, the non-voters are doing it exactly right, they feel they're well-represented by the voters around them, and that's why they're non-voters.
Brooke Gladstone: [laugh] Did anybody say that in the Knight study?
Eitan: [laugh] The Knight study did a bunch of these focus groups. I haven't read all of the transcripts, I'm not sure if anyone articulate just as I did, but sometimes the academics have to play devil's advocate.
Brooke Gladstone: Eitan, thank you very much.
Eitan: Thanks for having me.
Brooke Gladstone: Eitan Hersh is the author of Politics Is for Power. He's a political scientist at Tufts University and he was an academic advisor on the Knight Foundation's recent study, The 100 Million Project. The Untold Story of American Non-voters. For more OTM, sign up for our newsletter, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and wash your hands.
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