Voter turnout in the U.S. is typically much lower than you might expect, lagging behind that of other developed democratic countries around the world.
A 2018 Pew Research Center study looked at the percentage of the voting-age population who participated in the most recent national election in 32 countries. The U.S. came in at No. 26, with only 56% of voting-age Americans casting ballots in the 2016 election. (The percentage of the voting-eligible population who participated was higher at 60%, according to the United States Election Project. The voting-eligible metric excludes voting-age people who can’t cast a ballot because they’re not citizens or they have a felony conviction.)
Regardless of which metric you look at, it’s clear that a very large swath of the country that could vote doesn’t. You can make a difference, however small, by encouraging your friends and family to cast ballots this year and beyond. Below, experts share common reasons people don’t vote and how you can persuade them to do so.
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Why People Don’t Vote
Citizens may fail to participate in an election for any number of reasons — sometimes they can’t, sometimes they don’t want to and sometimes they’re not sure how.
For many, it’s a matter of access. They can’t take the time off work, they don’t have transportation to their polling location, they have a health issue or disability that makes it challenging to vote, or (especially this year) they don’t know how to obtain a mail-in ballot.
Structural barriers like voter ID requirements, voter roll purges, felony disenfranchisement, closure of polling sites and other forms of voter suppression often disproportionately impact Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities. Just registering to vote is a hurdle for many people, given the early deadlines and inability to register online in some states.
Humans are social beings, and having someone ask you to do something is a powerful way of motivating action. Jennifer Erkulwater, a political science professor at the University of Richmond
Then there are folks who choose to stay home on Election Day. They might be cynical about politics in general, feel apathetic about the candidates, not want to deal with the hassle of voting or think their vote doesn’t matter anyway.
“People don’t vote because of negative campaigning which makes them believe that roles such as ‘voter,’ ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ do not fit them,” Kevin Lanning, a psychology and data science professor at Florida Atlantic University, told HuffPost. “They don’t vote because their impression of parties and candidates doesn’t correspond to their own self-image.”
And sometimes people don’t vote because no one asked them to, said University of Richmond political science professor Jennifer Erkulwater. That’s where you come in.
“Humans are social beings, and having someone ask you to do something is a powerful way of motivating action,” she said. “Political parties, political and civic organizations, and our friend groups are networks that we draw from to keep us informed about politics and motivate us to take action.”
Practical Ways To Encourage Loved Ones To Vote
Start on these get-out-the-vote tactics now. If you wait until the last minute, you risk missing the window of opportunity.
Make it easier for them to cast their ballot.
Voting requires time and effort. You need to get yourself registered, you probably want to research the candidates and then you need to actually cast your vote. If you can, do some of the legwork for the non-voter in your life.
“Anything that would reduce the ‘costs’ of voting would be helpful: obtaining the paperwork for registering or securing an absentee or mail-in ballot, sharing voting guides, rides to the polls and so forth,” Erkulwater said
Your efforts would be one small but important step. In order to make voting more accessible on a larger scale, we also need more education, activism and legislation to help break down the systemic barriers to voting that affect certain groups — like people of color, students, people with low income and those with disabilities — more than others.
Share your own plan to vote and ask them to do the same.
Your pal or relative may have a vague intention to vote, but no plan for when (during early voting or on Election Day?) or how (in person or by mail?). If they’re voting in person, do they know where their polling place is? (It may well be different this year as states consolidate voting sites due to the pandemic.) Articulate your own voting plan or put it in writing and prompt them to share theirs. When we make a commitment to a particular course of action, we’re more likely to follow through on it, Lanning said.
“I’m going to take my own medicine here and affirm that I will vote by mail within four days of receiving my ballot,” he said. “In writing these words, it gives me a path, a plan and increases the likelihood that I will cast my vote. What’s your plan? Share it with friends — public commitments are especially powerful.”
Appeal to their sense of civic duty.
Start a conversation about what being an American means to you. Encourage your loved one to share their thoughts, too.
“We vote because we cherish our identity as Americans. We vote out of a sense of duty and responsibility,” Lanning said. “We vote because voting feels good, because it makes us feel that we are part of something bigger — a community, a movement, a country, a democracy. Voting is an act of hope and trust, and to feel hopeful and trusting is a good thing.”
These kinds of chats will, hopefully, encourage non-voters to do their part by getting involved in the election process.
“If a friend is depressed or down, lacking motivation and energy, voting is a step that can help you climb out of that hole,” Lanning said. “It is doing something for someone else — for me and your neighbors — and we will thank you.”
Good news: Once someone votes, they’re more likely to do it again.
Don’t underestimate the power of habit when it comes to voting. If you can encourage a friend or relative to vote in this election, your efforts may have a long-term impact.
“Once we start voting, early in our adult lives or perhaps later, it is a habit that will carry forward over time,” Lanning explained. “This is one, and only one, of the many reasons why young people vote at a lower rate than older adults.”
“But the first time you vote will make the next one easier,” he said.
For more information on how to vote, head over to our TurboVote module.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.