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Why People Don’t Vote

After every election, pundits and politicians, academics and regular citizens decry our country’s relatively low voter turnout rate and call for ways to improve participation. Today we have a better sense of why Americans don’t vote.

The U.S. Census Bureau on Wednesday released its report about registration and voting in the November 2012 presidential election. The report—The Diversifying Electorate-Voting Rates by Race and Hispanic Origin in 2012 (and other Recent Elections) — is based on Census’ Current Population Survey (CPS) Voting and Registration supplement, administered immediately after all federal elections.

Many of the reasons people don’t vote are outside the realm of policymakers’ fixing. Some of the reasons are not surprising. Of those not voting, 8.6% were out of town, 18.9% were too busy, 12.7% did not like the candidates or campaign issues, and 15.7% reported not being interested. Other responses seem contrary to what we hear about in the media: only 2.7% could not find their polling place and 5.5% experienced a registration issue. I am not sure what to do about the 3.9% of respondents who simply forgot to vote despite the complete saturation of media coverage about the election.

Policymakers can, however, confront one reason respondents reported not voting. Of nonvoting respondents, 14% were unable to participate because of an illness or disability. As one might imagine, the distribution of these respondents is not uniform across all age groups, with 42% of respondents over age 65 reporting that they could not vote due to illness or disability. That compares to just 3% of nonvoters aged 18-24. We also learn from the data that simply having any disability makes it less likely an American will be registered to vote in the first place compared to those not having a disability (69.2% to 71.5%) and less likely that they will participate (56.8% to 62.5%).

BPC’s Democracy Project studies election administration issues, including access to the ballot. One of our goals is to help election administrators ensure that all voters who are eligible to vote can successfully participate in the democratic process.

States and local jurisdictions have many ways to assist voters with disabilities, from accessible voting machines and polling places, curbside voting options, web-interfaces for completing absentee ballots, among others. Now that policymakers know who isn’t voting but can be assisted, they must incorporate available, workable solutions into the process to reduce the number of Americans who report that disability and illness keeps them away from the polls in 2014.

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