Why is it so hard to vote?

Nov. 7, 2016, 10:29 a.m.

Voting in the United States has long been seen as not just a right, but as a civic duty. How can the people hope to create and direct change if they are not willing to use their most potent political tool? How can policy be affected if the voice of the people remains silent – especially silent by choice? Voting isn’t just a mechanical function of government; it is a decision to make an impact in the system we all live in.

This inevitably leads to the question everybody asks every four years: Why do so few young people vote? Why do so few college students vote? One of the most supposedly idealistic demographics of the U.S. population has the lowest voting turnout, for some reason we just never seem able to pinpoint.

There are all kinds of psychological reasons why young people just don’t vote – from feelings of inefficacy to rebellion against the system. But what about systemic reasons? What about things that aren’t necessarily reasons not to vote, but which are reasons why attempting to vote just isn’t worth the time and effort?

Registration and the act of voting itself are both extremely inaccessible, and it impacts a lot more than just students and young people. The National Commission on Voting Rights released a report last year detailing the various ways that voting is a right still barred to some eligible citizens. The report states:

“Voters with disabilities often … find that accessible voting equipment is not functioning properly … Out-of-state college students have been denied regular ballots because their college addresses do not match their driver’s licenses.”

Voting is often lengthy, complicated, and expensive. All of these factors create barriers for the poor, the young (like students), minorities, and the disabled.

Low-income family impact

An article by CNN Money discusses the income gap in voting. The fact is that just registering to vote is an ordeal on its own. For those who have recently moved (individuals below the poverty line are more likely to move at a given time), for those who do not have government-issued IDs, and have to buy them (for up to $60), and for those who can’t afford to miss work to deal with this incredibly complicated system, registering to vote is a hassle that may not be worth the time.

In 2012, almost a third of people with household incomes of less than $20,000 per year (a population disproportionately made up by minorities) didn’t vote because they were “too busy” or encountered “transportation problems.”

Too busy

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration reported that in 2012, some 10 million people waited over half an hour to vote, and evidence shows that voters in precincts with more minorities had longer wait times and fewer resources at voting locations. For those who need every hour of income they can produce, half an hour spent waiting in line is a significant block of time.

Transportation problems

Voting locations and registration offices are sometimes hard to get to. In Santa Clara County, for example, the single registrar’s office is in San Jose and is only open Monday through Thursday, during primary work and class hours.

When voting becomes a question of first taking public transportation for half an hour or more, then navigating from the transit stop to the registrar’s office, then dealing with the bureaucratic process there, and finally timing your return for a reasonable wait time and return home, it’s easy to see why the time commitment is impossible for many people.

Minority impact

Racism in the voting system is alive and well. An article by PBS further explains the report previously mentioned by the National Commission on Voting Rights. It discusses discriminatory policies like new photo ID laws, redrawing districts to dilute minority votes, limiting voting hours and early voting hours. These measures are often presented as acts of objective legislation. But the Washington Post notes the disproportional impact of these laws and requirements to very specific demographics:

In North Carolina, the legislature requested racial data on the use of electoral mechanisms, then restricted all those disproportionately used by blacks, such as early voting, same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting … The legislative record actually justified the elimination of one of the two days of Sunday voting because “counties with Sunday voting in 2014 were disproportionately black” and “disproportionately Democratic.”

Student impact

Student voting in the United States is a huge issue. Young Americans are often accused of failing in their civic duty. And yet the actual policies of the U.S. directly contradict this supposed wish for youth voting. The New York Times published an article in 2014 commenting on age-based discrimination in U.S. voting requirements. It quotes Marc Elias, a Democratic election lawyer, condemning recent voting legislation as part of an intentional design to restrict youth voting.

Permanent residence

College students are among the most mobile people in the country. The issue of their “permanent residence” is a constant hassle, and it makes an infuriating difference in voting registration. Students are required to show proof of residency in a state to vote there. This causes problems in all forms. For some, the problem arises when their place of residence doesn’t match the residence on their ID. For others, university addresses are simply dismissed as illegitimate “permanent” residences.

The seemingly obvious solution would be to vote absentee. But for those who vote by mail, the process is hardly easier. Nearly half the country requires an excuse in order to obtain an absentee ballot, even if you manage to register absentee – with a deadline long in advance of the regular date.

ID requirements

Gunther Peck, associate professor at Duke University, believes that restrictive ID requirements are designed to target students, because of the high correlation between age and party alignment. He commented, “The Republicans knew exactly how to suppress votes. … They looked carefully at how they lost in 2008 and found the weak links in that coalition. The law has made it much harder for students to get the proper ID, and there’s several steps they have to go through now to secure what is a constitutional right: the right to vote.”

With fewer young people getting driver’s licenses, and student IDs and out-of-state driver’s licenses mostly unacceptable as proof of identification, overly complex ID requirements are a big barrier to young adult voting.

The U.S. functions under a voting system that is geared toward white, middle-to-upper-class people over the age of 30, and some argue that it is due to a Republican-led effort to prevent more liberal demographics of voters from voicing their opinions.

Inaccessibility of voting locations and registrar’s offices, restrictive voting hours, and ID requirements disproportionately impact students, people of color, and the poor. Even the voting methods that people use are subject to discriminatory action – like cutting early voting times and creating complicated and time-consuming ballots for out-of-state and recently moved voters.

So maybe students don’t vote because we millennials are just lazy, entitled narcissists that can’t be bothered to engage in politics. Maybe we do feel disconnected to the community, or that we don’t really know the candidates and their policies – though with the staggering volume of online resources and news sites, that seems a slightly arrogant position to take.

But maybe young people don’t vote because of the sheer logistical ordeal of registration as an out-of-state young person lacking oodles of time and a readily available car. Maybe young people don’t vote because it is entirely possible to not know whether you successfully registered to vote, even though you sent in your registration document to the Santa Clara registrar’s office twice, because each of the thirty times you tried to register online you were told that you had to print and send a physical copy because the California DMV had no record of you.

Contact Maximiliana Bogan at ebogan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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