The Definitely Messy, Probably Solvable Reasons Americans Don't Vote
By Michael Keller and Yvette Romero
April 4, 2016

Americans are less likely to exercise their right to vote than citizens of many other democracies. The result is millions of lost voters—people who are eligible and may even be registered, but don’t show up. In 2012, 56.5 percent of voting-age Americans cast a ballot, according to the U.S. Census. It’s not because people in the U.S. aren’t paying attention to the presidential race—good luck trying to avoid it. So what’s keeping them from the ballot box? After every election, the Census asks hundreds of thousands of Americans whether they voted, and if they didn't, to explain why. Here’s what they said.

High and low earners can't get to the polls

People at the high end of the income scale and those at the low end said they didn’t vote because they couldn’t physically get to their polling place—but for very different reasons. A significant number of those making more than $150,000 reported they were "out of town" on election day. Those making less than $30,000 more often cited "illness or disability."

The elderly need assistance

Nearly half of all elderly Americans who didn't vote said health reasons kept them away from the polls.

A large number of young people said they, too, were away from home on election day, possibly because they were in college. All of this points to a need for much easier early in-person and mail-in balloting. Several states have made it less of a hassle to vote prior to election day, which could help those with mobility issues or conflicting schedules. All ballots in Oregon, Colorado, and Washington state are now cast by mail. While national voter turnout declined from 2010 to 2014, Colorado saw an increase in its first midterm election under the new system.

At the same time, though, some states are moving in the opposite direction. Ohio, North Carolina, and numerous others have recently passed or implemented laws to limit early voting.

Registration could be a lot easier

"Registration issues"—things like failing to receive a mail-in ballot or not appearing on the voter rolls—were another common reason that kept people from voting. Moves in some states to allow automatic registration, which registers citizens to vote when they apply for a driver’s license or other government services, could increase the number of eligible voters and reduce problems. Oregon recently passed such a measure, and California's will take effect after this year's election. "Two dozen other states are considering it and if done right, automatic registration could have a big impact," says Myrna Perez, Deputy Director of the Brennan Center for Justice.

New Jersey, which ranked 28th in voter registration in 2014, was set to become the third state with an automatic registration law. But Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the measure last November, calling it "political gamesmanship."

"Ten or 15 years ago, the idea that everyone could vote and our system should be free, open, and accessible was a bipartisan idea," Perez says. "Now I am certainly seeing more brazenness about enacting policies that are going to make it harder for some people to vote."

Some states have had success with letting people register online. When Arizona started doing that in 2004, it saw the number of of 18- to 24-year-olds who registered to vote increase from 29 to 53 percent in eight years. In Pennsylvania, 1,310 people submitted applications the first day the state opened its online registration portal last August.

How many lost voters are there in your state?

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