Social Barriers to Voting

Pauline Schneider
Will you vote? And if not, why not? Being a landowner is no longer a requirement, women may vote, poll taxes have been abolished, the voting age has been lowered to 18, and registration may be accomplished when obtaining a driver's license. But Americans do not flood to the polling places each time there is an election. Many fail to exercise their right to decide who is to represent them for the next two, four, or six years as their spokespersons in city councils, mayors' offices, governors' mansions, state assemblies, the House of Representatives, the Senate, or even the White House.
In the November 1994 national elections, 85 million Americans reported that they had voted, representing 45 percent of the 18-years-and-over population. 1994 was an off-year election, with the candidates running only for the House of Representatives (elected or re-elected every two years) and the Senate (one-third of the seats are up for grabs at two-year intervals for six-year terms). In 1992, the last time a U.S. president was elected, the voter turnout rose to 61 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Contrast that to a 94 percent turnout in Italy, which has a parliamentary system (the reigning government falls if its leader fails to obtain a majority vote in the national legislature-a "no confidence vote", as it is called) that has necessitated a new election at least every year since the end of World War II. Frequency of voting does not mean respect for the system, however. Only 3 percent of the Italians respect their political system, vis-à-vis 85 percent of the Americans who approve of the U.S. election system (Wolfinger 1991).

So Americans like the system but don't use it. Some statistics: In November 1994, voter turnout was 47 percent of whites, 37 percent of African Americans, 19 percent of Hispanic Americans, and 18 percent of Asian Americans. These figures represent percentages of the total populations, both citizens and noncitizens, within each group. Those numbers are deceptive. The Census Bureau has estimated the percentage of American citizens (those legally allowed to vote) who went to the polling places in 1994. This estimate shows no change in the above percentages for whites or African Americans, but an increase to 34 percent for Hispanic Americans and 41 percent for Asian Americans.

A few more 1994 statistics: Only 20 percent of all eligible voters of all races between the ages of 18 and 24 participated in the election. There was no overall difference in the turnout rates between men and women, although women aged 18 to 44 outperformed men of similar ages by 36 percent to 34 percent, and men 65 years and older outpaced women of similar ages by 66 percent to 57 percent. In the middle, men and women 45 to 65 tied at 56 percent (U.S. Census Bureau 1995).

These numbers cannot be characterized as a statistically relevant sampling, but provide a reasonable starting point. Extrapolating from that data, it seems that whites are most often likely to vote, followed by Asian Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans. Older persons are much more inclined to vote than the under-25 crowd, and the percentages of men and women who cast their ballots are virtually identical.

Barriers to voting vary among age, social, racial, and economic groups. Younger people, for instance, are often too busy to be bothered, or feel they have little or no stake in the outcome of an election. There is school to attend, tests to take, work to be completed, money to be made, and parties in the offing. There is simply no time to vote, particularly if there is a line at the polling station. This is the "barrier" of inconvenience, of not caring enough to make the effort. Put another way, this is the difference between being a "party animaquot;-or for the first time in one's life, making a few good bucks-and being a political participant. Younger people often express the view that it does not matter who is in the office, since what politicians do has little direct impact on their lives. This attitude is changed, to some degree, by marriage, a mortgage, children, taxes, and all of the residuals that accompany those lifestyle milestones. Interest grows as the ways in which political decisions affect one's life increase; a vote becomes more important.

Apathy remains a significant determinant in voting decisions. People become bored, alienated, or mistrustful of politicians. They may see no real differences between the political parties-which is, in part, why Ross Perot did well in 1992, since he was seen as an alternative. Closer to home, there has always been the maxim "You can't fight City Hall." Or the once-famous Chicago machine slogan "Vote Early and Often." These sometimes ingrained attitudes give rise to the feeling that a vote (one vote) means nothing.
It is not exactly one vote by a single individual in a general election, but one vote per precinct gave John F. Kennedy the presidency in 1960, and one vote per precinct in California made Harry Truman the president in 1948. The Selective Service Act passed in Congress by one vote in 1939, and one vote gave Adolf Hitler the leadership of the Nazi party in 1923. One vote saved Andrew Johnson from impeachment in 1868; one vote brought Texas into the Union in 1845; and one vote gave the United States the English language instead of German (American Bar Association 1996).

Votes count, one at a time, and the apathy syndrome is best overcome by the philosophy that, if someone else does not vote in an election, the person who does vote has more influence. When only half the eligible voters go to the polls for an election, those who do vote have doubled their power.

Americans speak many languages, and if we are to have informed voters, we must communicate with them in a language they understand. The words on a ballot are not so important as those spoken before election day. How does a potential voter judge a candidate whose speech cannot be understood? How does, say, a Spanish-speaking voter make an informed decision as to who should hold whatever office if the issues are presented in English, even if the ballot is in Spanish? There is an underlying premise in the American democratic process that voters know what they are doing, at least part of the time. Faced with a confusion of terminology, potential voters who are not proficient in English may be overwhelmed by incomprehensible words to such an extent that they ignore the voting booth.

Education is another factor in voting trends. More educated persons vote more often than those with less schooling. Only 23 percent of those who never attended high school voted in 1994, compared to 40.5 percent of those with a high school diploma. These percentages rose to 49 percent for persons with some college and to 63 percent for those with four or more years of higher education. The barrier in this instance is one of knowledge-the more people know, the more apt they are to vote because they realize the importance of having some influence on the political system. In a free society, the most important way to change these percentages is to encourage people to stay in school.

Poverty has an adverse impact on voting. A mere 28 percent of the unemployed voted in 1994 versus 45 percent of persons employed by private companies, 53 percent of the self-employed, and 63 percent of those employed in government. The unemployed mostly felt they had nothing to lose by not voting. Employees of private firms split, with more persons owning companies voting because they felt the need to be on top of the political situation. Government employees expressed a vested interest in voting: they are electing their bosses.

Minority Disincentives
Race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation also often play a part in election campaigns. When a candidate for national office appears in slick television spots accompanied by a wife, three children, and a dog against a suburban backdrop, some minorities might be turned off. When candidates use terms that can be read as code words for minority inclusion or exclusion, potential voters may decide to sit out an election. A basic fact of voting is that candidates typically must obtain a majority of the votes cast, and if they do not need the votes of a minority population, they often ignore them. This can have the effect of alienating groups that are not targeted by a campaign manager, and so they have little incentive to vote.

Election year polls are popular with the media. They tell us, at a given moment, who is ahead and by how much, based on a statistical sample of prospective voters. The wording of the questions presented often has a definite effect on the replies, but the process has become sophisticated enough to give polls credibility. The trouble with this census taking of public opinion is that it sometimes discourages people from voting if they think that their favorite candidate is 30 percent ahead or 30 percent behind. Why bother? He or she is going to win or lose in any event. Exit polls taken during the 1980 presidential election showed Ronald Reagan as the winner, based on the results in the Eastern and Central time zones. Many voters in California who learned of his lead stayed home-to the detriment of a number of local candidates.

People on the Move
Another factor in not voting is that Americans are very mobile. Some 20 percent of potential voters do not have the same address from one year to the next, and one-third move every two years. In 1980, 48 percent of people who had not lived in the same place for two years reported that they voted, compared to 65 percent who had stayed put longer. The discrepancy has nothing to do with being interested, informed, or attentive to the political process. Many of the people who moved simply had not gotten around to registering in their new location. The longer people live at one address, the more likely they are to vote. When people move, many tasks are more important than registering to vote and, because half of all moves take place during the summer, with most elections occurring in the fall, people may only have a month or so to register.
Italy, with its high voter turnout, has an automatic voter registration system that is not affected by moving from one place to another. The Italian government also provides subsidized train tickets to persons wishing to return to their place of registration in order to vote. As would be expected, this means that elections provide an opportunity for many Italians to go home and visit with their families or old friends.

Registering to vote may not assure that an individual will go to the polls, but it certainly helps. People under the age of 25 will, if registered, vote at the same rate as those who are 55. Even people who profess to have no interest at all in politics will, if registered, vote at a 74 percent rate in a presidential election (Wolfinger 1991).
One final barrier: It may be citizens' civic duty to vote, and they may adamantly favor a candidate and want to show their support for that individual but refuse to register because the state or locality in which they reside draws its slate of jurors from voter registration lists. Jury duty, while welcomed by some, is a nuisance for people who are already too busy at the office, inconvenienced by transportation, or bored by the thought of going through what they consider to be an ordeal. That is another civic duty, but it is also another story.

American Bar Association Special Committee on Youth Organization for Citizenship. "Your Vote Counts" (poster), LRE Report (spring 1996).U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1994 Voting Survey. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of the Census, 1995.Wolfinger, Raymond E. "Voter Turnout," Society (July/August 1991): 63-70.

Pauline A. Schneider is Chair of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Election Law in Washington, DC. She is a partner of the law firm of Hunton and Williams in Washington, DC.