Unheard ThirdDemocracy

Social & Structural Barriers to Voting


Voting is easy! Right? If you are eligible to vote — of age, a citizen, no felony convictions, and a judge has not ruled you incompetent — then there should be no reason why you don’t participate, right? Unfortunately, it is not so simple. There are still millions of people who don’t participate in elections, despite having no legal impediments. And it is definitely not because they are all apathetic or lazy and just don’t bother to vote. In fact, there are many reasons why people continue to find it difficult to exercise their voting rights even when they want to participate.

What the research says

Based on a general population survey we commissioned from Change Research in mid November 2020 (n=4,220), 13% of our respondents reported that they had not voted in 2020. Of those who didn’t vote, almost 21% reported not voting due to a barrier that kept them from the polls. These did not include inability to vote due to immigration status or felony disenfranchisement. Almost 21% of the non voters in our sample reported not voting because they faced barriers due to structural inequalities, despite the fact that they were eligible to vote.

Each of our respondents who said they didn’t vote in 2020 due to a barrier answered yes to at least one (and sometimes multiple) of the following: they couldn’t get off work; they didn’t have childcare; they didn’t have transportation to the polls; they tried to vote but were turned away at their polling location; or the lines at their polling place were too long.

Barriers to voting in our sample were not evenly distributed. Instead they were more likely to impact Black and Hispanic respondents and respondents with lower socioeconomic status. Approximately 67% of the respondents who reported not voting due to some barrier make less than $50K per year and approximately 88% make less than $100K per year. Almost 7% of respondents who reported not voting due to a barrier said they were afraid of facing voter intimidation at their polling place.

At the beginning of this series, we described the 23 focus groups we did with people who were eligible to vote in the 2020 election but chose not to participate. Structural barriers to participation came up in many of those discussions, especially among our Black and Hispanic respondents. There were issues with mail-in ballots that didn’t arrive and polling place location changes, among other things. There are a lot of potential barriers that keep people from the polls. This is going to be a long one, so buckle up. Here we go.

Voter ID

There has been a lot of recent attention paid to voter ID laws. These laws typically require voters to bring government issued ID, usually photo ID, with them to the polls to cast their ballot. In some states, voters are required to submit a copy of their ID with mail in or absentee ballots as well.

For a lot of us, voter ID is not a problem. We have drivers licenses or other state or federally issued ID, like a passport, that we can bring with us to the polls. For those that have ID, lack of ID may seem trivial — why don’t they just go get ID? But for many, it is not quite so simple.

Take the story of Della Green. Ms. Green is 69 years old. She was born and raised in South Carolina. She has a social security number. She is eligible for and receives government benefits. But she doesn’t have an ID because she doesn’t have a birth certificate. Because she was born in the South and delivered by midwife, her birth was not formally  documented, so she has never had a birth certificate. Without a birth certificate, she has been unable to produce proper documentation to apply for a state or federally issued ID, which posed a problem when she moved to Georgia, where an ID was required to do all kinds of things like apply for housing and register to vote. And Della Green’s story isn’t as unusual as you might think. It even came up in our focus groups, where Miguel*, a Hispanic man living in Arizona told us, “In 2020, I had a mishap with my birth certificate, so I wasn’t able to register in this state, because I moved here a little bit ago.”

For some, like Ms. Green and Miguel, the formal documents required to obtain the necessary ID to vote in some states makes a lack of ID an ongoing problem that is difficult to solve. According to a 2006 survey conducted by the Brennan Center, 7% of Americans lack easy access to the documents required to prove citizenship. Based on the 2000 census, that translates to approximately 13 million Americans. They also estimated that approximately 25% of African American voting-age citizens didn’t have government issued photo ID compared to 8% of voting-age white citizens, suggesting that difficulty obtaining the required documents to get a government issued ID is not distributed equally across all groups.

Even when lack of ID is a temporary issue, the inconvenience and effort required to solve that problem might keep people from voting, especially if the problem happens to present itself when voting deadlines are nearing. Samantha Adams had a problem like that ahead of the 2020 election. Ms. Adams had just moved to Indiana and needed to get a voter ID from the DMV in order to register to vote in her new state. But she found that Indiana’s laws around IDs were much more difficult for her to comply with than they were for her husband. It turns out that in Indiana she needed to provide documentation for every single name change she’s ever had before they would issue her ID. In Ms. Adams’ case, this meant tracking down documents from her first marriage and divorce as well as her second marriage. She ended up having to request documents from the courts, which required paying a lot of fees. She was able to get her new ID just in the nick of time, but that was due to persistence, time, and financial resources. Someone working two jobs to put food on the table for their kids might not have the time or resources to jump through hoops in time to get an ID ahead of an election.

Another example is Anthony Settles who was raised in DC but as of 2016 was living in Texas. Mr. Settles can’t get a new ID in Texas because they require that your name match your birth certificate and if it doesn’t you must provide proof of name change. The problem is that Mr. Settles’ last name was changed by his mother when he was a teenager and in order to get proof he would have had to pay the DC courts a $250 fee, an amount he found too steep.

These are just a few stories to illustrate some of the ways that voter ID laws make it harder for some people to vote. And there are many other reasons why someone might have difficulty obtaining a photo ID. Their name may have been spelled incorrectly on their birth certificate, or on prior forms of ID, making it difficult to obtain current ID requirements depending on the state. They may not be able to afford the fees associated with getting an ID in some states. They may have just lost their ID (we touched on one way this might happen in our recent post about voting and climate change), or their ID may have recently been stolen and there wasn’t enough time to replace it. In fact, there are millions of people in the US who should be eligible to vote but don’t have proper identification to do so, making ID accessibility a major issue for voting access.

Housing Instability

Housing instability is another challenge to voting. While homelessness by itself is not a legal barrier to voting, it can create challenges that make actually voting difficult to impossible. For example, many people who lack stable housing also lack official photo ID. It can be very difficult for people who must move from place to place, often without real shelter, to maintain the documents necessary to obtain and hold onto proper identification. So the same voter ID issues discussed above are amplified when people experience housing instability. An additional complication comes from a law enacted after September 11, 2001, in 26 states that requires a residential address to get an official ID. This effectively bars homeless people from getting an ID, which will keep them from voting in states where ID is required to vote.

Homelessness also makes proving residence in a jurisdiction difficult. In order to register to vote in a jurisdiction, you have to prove you live there. But if you don’t have a stable address, that gets complicated. States generally allow people to put down intersections or parks as their residential address, but they often also need a mailing address so that the board of elections can send them voter information, voter cards, ballots, and other materials. Some jurisdictions allow voters to specify a shelter or other public/social service provider as their mailing address. But this requires people who are already dealing with immediate issues of survival to find such services before they can even start to think about voter registration. And, a lot of times, people who put shelters as their mailing address don’t end up receiving their mail anyway.

Homelessness also complicates polling place access. For example, let’s say Dave used to live at a fixed residential address in his district. He was registered to vote there and had easy access to his polling place because it was nearby. Now, let’s say Dave was recently evicted due to rising housing costs and an inability to keep up with his rent. He might find himself at a shelter on the other side of town, but still be registered to vote at his old polling place based on his last permanent address. Dave might find it very difficult to get himself across town to his old polling place. Instead, Dave might have decided to use the shelter as his mailing address and requested an absentee ballot. But Dave doesn’t reliably get mail at the shelter and his absentee ballot never arrived. Now he is stuck without the absentee ballot he proactively requested and unable to get across town to vote in person on election day. Local and federal officials and their policies have the potential to make a huge impact on Dave — their policies might have been the difference between Dave staying in his home or ending up on the street — but Dave’s circumstances make it difficult for him to have a say in who has the power to make decisions that affect his life.

Work and Childcare

Work and childcare can also be barriers to participating in elections. Some people find it difficult to take time out of their workday to go to the polls This happens even in places, like New York State, where employees are legally allowed up to two-hours paid time to go vote if they don’t have sufficient time to vote off the clock. There are many reasons why some people don’t have sufficient time to vote even when they are supposedly allowed the time. For example, some people may be afraid to ask for the time. Others might work two jobs and find it difficult to navigate voting and requesting time off when they have multiple shifts and multiple bosses.

Limited voting hours at polling places can make voting extremely difficult for people who are reluctant to ask for the time during their work hours or who live in states that don’t require employers to provide  time off to vote. Although some employers in states where it is not required still provide paid time off for voting, that is not the case for all of them. In 2020, workers at Amazon, the second largest employer in the United States, had to sign a petition demanding the company provide paid time off for workers to go and vote. It is unclear whether or not Amazon ended up granting their request, but a lack of follow-up in the news suggests that they did not.

Another issue is childcare. There are many ways that childcare could create a barrier to voting. It could be a need for additional childcare on voting day to accommodate voting before or after work. It could be a caretaking parent who doesn’t normally use childcare but can’t feasibly take small children to the polls, especially when there is the possibility of long lines.

An individual solution might be to apply for a mail-in or absentee ballot, if you live in a state that allows for those, but this doesn’t always solve the problem. Multiple respondents in our focus groups reported applying for a mail-in or absentee ballot which either came late or didn’t arrive at all. Stacey,* a Black woman from Pennsylvania, told us “I wanted to do the mail-in ballot. I signed up for it, but I didn’t get it. I never received it … I have two small children. We just could not get out of the house in time to go vote. It just didn’t happen.” Stacey planned to vote. She had the foresight and put in the effort to request a ballot. But the ballot never showed up and she was unable to get to the polls because to do so she would have needed childcare that she didn’t have.

Polling Places

The number and geography of polling places can also create barriers to voting. Polling places are supposed to be accessible centralized locations, allocated by geography and population, where people can go to cast their vote. Ideally, they are easy to get to and easy to navigate. According to a 2014 report by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, voters should never have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote.

Unfortunately, this ideal does not reflect the reality of polling places in America. In fact, many of the new restrictive voting laws that have been put into place in the last year have included provisions to reduce the number of available polling places, ballot drop boxes, and voter centers.  Reducing the number of polling places means that some people will have to go to different locations than the ones they have gone to in the past. For some, this will entail longer drives or more difficult commutes via public transit.

In Louisiana, a recent reduction in the number of polling precincts means that some residents will have to drive up to 20 miles to get to their polling location in the next major election. Even for those whose employers provide time off from work to vote, this could be a challenge because many only provide a few hours. For those without guaranteed time off, however, the extra time required to drive 20 miles to a polling place would only compound difficulties getting the necessary time off or securing child care. In addition, reducing the number of polling places means that more people have to vote at each remaining location. This is how you get long lines at polling places – locations that are serving more people than they can easily accommodate at once. And these polling place reductions are not evenly distributed across the population. That’s why there are generally longer lines to vote in places with large nonwhite populations and you rarely hear about long lines in places that serve mostly white voters.

recent research study demonstrated that location matters when it comes to voting. In that study, several political scientists showed that in 2017 in Pierce County, Washington, there was a 0.64% increase in the probability of voting for each 1 mile decrease in the distance to the nearest ballot drop box. Distance, combined with issues with the postal system, interfered with one of our focus group participants who tried to vote on election day. Liz*, a Black woman living in Pennsylvania told us: “I was going to vote by mail. They sent it on the last day, and I went to three different places. It’s usually right around the corner and now it’s downtown, this place and that place until the time was up. I almost fainted. I couldn’t even believe it. It was all from them, making all of these different places … I would never have not voted.” Liz wanted to vote and made a plan to do so. She requested a mail in ballot ahead of time and when it arrived late, she even changed her plan.  But then when she tried to vote on election day, her polling place had changed and she was unable to find the correct place in time to cast her ballot.

An additional difficulty arises when you consider fewer polling places, with longer distances, and people who don’t have access to easy transportation. Some places have robust ride-to-the-poll programs, but not all places. Even where these places exist, people may be understandably wary of using them if they don’t feel comfortable getting in the car with a stranger, which was a sentiment expressed by one of our respondents in a focus group in Arizona who felt that voter outreach was scary and aggressive, including volunteers offering to drive her to the polls. In our study of voter turnout, we found that counties where a smaller percentage of households had access to a car had lower voter turnout compared to counties with a higher percentage of households with access to a car. Our finding is consistent with the findings of a 2020 working paper by two scholars at Harvard. They found that lack of access to a car depresses election day turnout even when accounting for both environmental factors and voter characteristics. They also found that the depressive effect was most prevalent among young voters, voters who live far away from polling places, and non-white voters. On the other hand, car access did not seem to have any effect on absentee-voting rates, suggesting that expanded access to absentee voting might mitigate voting barriers caused by structural factors limiting ease of access to physical polling places.

Language Barriers

Language can also be a barrier to voting. There are many people in the US who are citizens, eligible to vote, and who are not fully fluent in English. The US does not have a national language and the freedom to speak your own language, participate in your own religion, practice your own culture is part of the narrative about what makes America the land of opportunity. However, our systems are not always set up to accommodate the great diversity of our citizenry.

Language can be a barrier when a voter doesn’t speak fluent English but there are no translators, interpreters, or translated ballots or other election related materials available to them in their home language. For example, in Michigan in 2020 a judge issued a consent decree requiring a local city to provide Bengali-language ballots and other assistance to Bengali speakers at the polls. Prior to that consent decree, the large Bengali-American population did not have the help they needed to cast their ballots in local and national elections. In California, there are Arabic and Somali speaking voters who are lacking that help. And in New York City, there were many poll sites that were missing required Spanish and Chinese language translators during the 2020 election.

Language accessibility is important because it relates to both voter turnout and voting outcomes. One study found that Spanish language ballot materials increase Hispanic voter turnout. The same study also found evidence that in largely Spanish speaking neighborhoods where there was Spanish language assistance at the polls there was a large decrease in support for ending bilingual education compared to places without language support. This suggests that when people who need language support at the polls are not provided with that support they are less likely to vote, and that their votes could have the power to change outcomes.

Even prior to its weakening, the Voting Rights Act only guaranteed language access for four language groups — as stated in the Act, American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskans, and Hispanics with limited English proficiency — and still only if certain thresholds for population and illiteracy were met. That leaves many other communities of potential voters left without the aid they need to exercise their right to vote.

To wrap up, it is easy to think of voting as a simple endeavor. But for many Americans, life and social structures make it complicated. Work and child care needs make scheduling difficult. Reductions in the number of polling locations and resulting long lines can compound that problem. Finances can make securing child care or taking off work impossible. Distance to your polling place creates complications around both scheduling and transportation. Lack of transportation means polling places are literally inaccessible to some people. Problems with the post office might mean pre-planning is for naught when a ballot either never arrives or comes too late to make it back on time. Lack of language support can make voting inaccessible to those without full English proficiency. And there are likely many more social and structural impediments that we haven’t covered here. The bottom line is that a right that should be easily accessible to everyone can be complicated by real world circumstances and compounded by systems that don’t account for some of the realities of everyday life. Many of these barriers can be addressed by simple changes in policy and practice, and then more people could participate in our democratic process. Given that the barriers are not still in place because of a lack of adequate solutions, it seems like they are still in place because of who they keep from the polls. And therein lies the issue.

*We have changed the names to protect the identities of our participants