Unheard ThirdDemocracy

Intangible Barriers to Voting


In our previous post, we discussed the different structural and social barriers that keep some eligible voters from casting their ballots. However, those barriers aren’t the only thing that keep people from voting. Indeed, polling from 2020 suggests that barriers to participation only accounted for about one fifth of non-voters. So what is going on with the other 80 percent that are eligible to vote but who fail to cast a ballot?

We often hear that the other 80 percent of non-voters are just apathetic. In the survey cited above, conducted by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, NPR, and Ipsos, they write that “apathy prevails for nonvoters,” noting that in their poll, “only one in five nonvoters said that something prevented them from voting in 2020, such as fear of exposure to covid-19, having to work, or confusion about the voting process.” As they put it, “the nonvoters of 2020 are alienated from the political process and isolated from active voters, creating a sort of echo chamber of apathy.” Reporting on the same data, NPR similarly writes that “difficulty voting doesn’t appear to be a major reason why they don’t vote… It’s more that these voters feel a sense of alienation and apathy. They are generally detached from the news and pessimistic about politics.”

When it comes to nonvoters, this narrative – that some nonvoters experience barriers to casting their ballots while the rest abstain out of apathy – often frames the discussion. Writing about young nonvoters, 538 says “we often hear how younger people are apathetic toward politics or politically disengaged. And while it’s true that they tend to vote at lower rates than older Americans, apathy is just one piece of the puzzle for young people – and maybe not even the most important piece.” Going back to 2018, this New York Times explainer notes that only about 40% of eligible voters vote in midterm elections, adding that “most people assume that voter turnout [in the United States] remains this low because Americans are apathetic and simply don’t want to vote. But it’s more likely that most Americans do want to vote, and one of the root causes of low turnout is this country’s framework of restrictive voting laws.”

After talking to 149 people across the political spectrum in 23 focus groups comprising AAPI, Black, Latinx, and White non-voters from Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, we argue that this framework is not just imprecise, but also  inaccurate. Beyond the institutional and structural barriers that keep people from voting, the reasons they cite for not casting a ballot are more complex and varied than any one label – especially when that label is “apathetic” – can convey. We should note here that apathy and the themes it encompasses are never explicitly defined by the authors who apply them to non-voters. For our purposes, apathy refers to someone who doesn’t vote because they are uninterested in or do not care about voting, elections, and their outcomes. Defined this way, we found that virtually none of our participants are apathetic.

When we talked to non-voters in our focus groups about democracy, voting, and elections, a few major themes emerged. First, trust came up time and time again with respect to different aspects of elections and government. Perhaps most commonly, the non-voters we spoke with expressed a lack of trust with the process of voting. This might be unsurprising given the barrage of lies about election fraud leading up to and following the election. While concern about voter fraud, election technology, and conspiracy theories about voting did come up in our discussions, non-voters also expressed a lack of trust in voting due to voter suppression and the electoral college, which, from their perspective, made their votes matter less or not count at all. Indeed, it was not uncommon to hear that our current system doesn’t live up to what a democracy should be. Beyond the process of voting, several participants also expressed a lack of trust when it comes to politicians. Several people mentioned that you can’t trust what politicians say because they lie, they don’t have the interests of the average person in mind, or they make promises during elections that they do not keep once in office.

This inability to trust elected officials was a consequence of the second major theme that emerged in our focus groups: a lack of accountability. From their perspective, there is no accountability for politicians’ broken promises, lies, or mistakes. Politicians are not trustworthy because they can and do say whatever they need to get elected with no accountability for not following through. This lack of follow through and accountability is one reason why participants expressed that voting for one candidate over the other made no difference, that they were both the same, or that they didn’t like either of their options. As one participant put it, “You know we got Biden in there now and what do you think he’s going to do? He’s going to do actually the same thing.” They don’t see any differences in their daily lives that they can attribute to any national officeholders, regardless of party, and don’t anticipate that they will any time soon because there is no accountability once politicians are in office.

Low levels of trust and perceived accountability feed directly into a desire for greater transparency, which was the final major theme that came out of our focus groups. Much of the desire for transparency emerged around information. The non-voters we spoke with expressed difficulty finding what they referred to as “independent sources” for information about candidates (especially at the local level), politicians’ records once in office, current events, and government/election processes. This, combined with the unprecedented nature of the 2020 election, created a great deal of confusion and uncertainty for many of the non-voters in our focus groups. And in addition to the confusion it introduced into their decisions around voting, it also led to greater suspicion of corruption, manipulation, and fraud among politicians.

While there is still much to learn about why non-voters do not cast ballots, our key takeaway from the non-voters we talked to was that apathy doesn’t appropriately capture their reasons for not casting a ballot. While there are, of course, some that do not care about voting or elections, that is not how we would characterize the overwhelming majority of the people we spoke with. Some participants even went so far as to articulate that abstaining from voting was an active choice. As one person put it, “I think no one would be better than either of the candidates that we had, so I cast my vote for no one.” Although most participants didn’t explicitly frame not voting as an intentional political action, virtually everyone did describe abstention as a choice that they made as a result of the various issues we outlined above.

And when it comes right down to it, it’s really hard to blame them for making this choice given the rise of blatant voter suppression efforts aimed at Black and other marginalized voters, rampant gerrymandering, the unrepresentativeness of the United States Senate, large and increasing economic inequality, and the resulting unresponsiveness of the government to the basic policy needs and preferences of Americans.

In this respect, we do not think that the non-voters we spoke to are unique. Indeed, surveys of non-voters report findings that are generally consistent with those from our focus groups. For example, despite the apathetic narrative, data from the Medill/NPR/Ipsos survey that we described at the beginning of this post has similar results. Their toplines show that when non-voters were asked whether something prevented them from voting or if they chose not to, 81% indicated that they chose not to vote. When asked whether they agree or disagree with a series of statements:

  • 53% of non-voters (compared to 24% of voters) agreed that “it makes no difference who is elected president, things go on just as they did before”
  • half (compared to 17% of voters) agreed with “I’m only one person, so my vote doesn’t make a difference”
  • 66% (compared to 45% of voters) agreed that “Voting in elections has little to do with the way that real decisions are made in our country.”

Non-voters were also asked if they agree or disagree with “I’m basically satisfied with the way the country is going so I don’t need to vote.” Only 15% agreed while 79% disagreed. In the Knight Foundation’s report on non-voters from 2016, they also found that non-voters have little faith in our election system and don’t believe in the impact of their own vote. Additionally, they say that the non-voters they spoke with engage with less news and do not feel like they have enough information to decide how to vote.

Some might argue that the labels we apply to people who do not vote are arbitrary. We disagree. Characterizing non-voters as apathetic implies a passivity that we just didn’t observe in our focus groups. And this passivity has implications for the ways that we engage with non-voters. If the vast majority of non-voters simply don’t care about voting or elections, there is little point in trying to engage them. However, if non-voting is their response to a system that doesn’t represent them or reflect their values, the burden is on us and organizations like us to push those in power to make our democracy more equitable and inclusive.

For this reason, we suggest reframing the dominant narrative around non-voters. As it stands, the current discourse emphasizes non-voters that experience tangible barriers to casting a ballot: time off work, childcare, and transportation so people can get to the polls; ID requirements to register and vote; long lines; and similar issues that can be addressed through policy. Everyone else is labeled as apathetic. The unintended consequence of this framing is that the intangible barriers – a lack of trust, accountability, and transparency – are viewed as indifference and then perceived not only as less legitimate reasons for not casting a ballot, but also as insurmountable when it comes to efforts to engage and organize. Instead of seeing non-voter disillusionment as a barrier to us engaging with them, we think it is more helpful to view it as a (-n intangible) barrier to them engaging with democracy. While it may not keep people from voting in the same way that ID requirements, long lines, and other structural barriers do, it is why many eligible people do not cast ballots. This is not to say that we shouldn’t address tangible barriers to casting a ballot. Any measures that make voting easier should be pursued. However, alongside the tangible barriers that we can address through policy, we should also be addressing the intangible barriers that have come to define participation in our democracy.