One nonvoter in Milwaukee who participated in a focus group cited by the study said she didn’t vote because of a “lack of interest, uneducated. The times that I’ve spent to get a little bit more educated, all the options suck. I don’t feel like one is great so I’m not going to vote at all.”
And just because structural barriers to voting are not forefront in voters’ minds doesn’t mean they don’t have a major impact.
Ho points out that states with more accessible voting infrastructure — particularly election-day registration — routinely have higher turnout than states that don’t. Minnesota, New Hampshire and Iowa all have election-day registration and had substantially higher turnout rates than the national average in 2016 — in some cases by greater than 10 percentage points.
Among nonvoters in the Knight study, 7 percent said they didn’t register because they’d forgotten — a problem that could have been remedied with election-day registration.
Ho also added that the United States is singular among advanced democracies in placing the onus for registering to vote on citizens rather than the government. In countries where the state registers voters, registration is substantially higher, with 91 percent registration in Canada and 96 percent in Sweden versus only 70 percent in the U.S. in 2016.
Six percent of nonvoters in the Knight study said they didn’t register because they’d recently moved. Ho pointed out that the U.S. is unique among advanced democracies in requiring citizens to re-register to vote when they move, making voting even less accessible.
“I don’t have any reason to think that Americans are more helpless or apathetic than people who live in other Western democracies,” Ho said. “So that makes me ask: What else is different about our systems? And the first thing I think of is how byzantine our registration systems are.”
Helping navigate those systems is among the top priorities of activists encouraging higher voter participation.
Speaking with POLITICO in November, Abrams said a major method to combating voter suppression is warning constituents about potential purges and letting them know how to to contest them. Abrams led a massive phone banking operation in November to warn voters in Georgia about a potential purge that drew then-Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang.
Jeanette Senecal, senior director of mission impact at the League of Women Voters, stressed that many would-be first-time voters especially don’t turn out to the polls because they aren’t aware of early voting opportunities. And those first-time voters may not realize just how difficult it can be to register and turn out.
“It’s really important to do some education, especially for new and first-time voters, around what the early voting opportunities are for them,” Senecal said. “And they wouldn’t know that’s an institutional barrier … But in reality, not knowing what their options are is a barrier.”