‘The Dog Ate My Ballot,’ and Other Reasons Some Don’t Head to the Polls

If you want to sport this sticker, you'll have to decipher the state ballot and then vote. (EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo by Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images

The California Report host Rachael Myrow speaks with Jenny Wagner, President of the League of Women Voters for California, a non-partisan, non-profit group that works to encourage civic participation. Ms. Wagner discusses research the League has done on voter participation or lack-thereof.

Edited transcript…

Rachael Myrow: So, what about people who don’t vote, or don’t even register to vote? Studies consistently show that public radio listeners are more likely as a group to vote, so I know my question is rhetorical. You found many excuses serve as a kind of cover for substantive concerns about the process, or their participation in it. Let’s run down some of the concerns, and you can translate for us as we go.

Rachael Myrow: If someone says, “I don’t like the choices,” how do you interpret that?

Jenny Wagner: Well, when people say they don’t like their choices, they often don’t understand what their choices are. They need more information about their options.

Rachael Myrow: How about when someone says, “My vote won’t count”?

Jenny Wagner: That’s a common one. It’s really that they feel that their opinion doesn’t matter, that they aren’t empowered.

Rachael Myrow: What about the old excuse, “It just takes too much time”?

Jenny Wagner: I have that problem too, actually. It’s that you don’t feel like you’re ready to vote. You’re worried that you’ll make a mistake, and you need more time, you need more information.

Rachael Myrow: And then there’s, “It’s really inconvenient.”

Jenny Wagner: That often is to cover up that they are intimidated. Nobody likes to feel stupid, or that they can’t figure it out. So, they really just need a little bit more help.

Rachael Myrow: I was stunned by this particular finding: the most important predictor of whether 18 to 30 year olds vote is if they grew up in a household with voters.

Jenny Wagner: That’s correct. You know, a lot of people assume, if they’re voters, that other people have that same kind of experience growing up, that they were surrounded with people talking about voting, so you know how it works, so that you know how you should do it. Basic things about how you research what you should vote for were never taught to them. So, they don’t learn, ‘Okay, this is how you register to vote. This is what happens the first time that you go to vote.’ No one took them to do that. And so there is a really basic level of explanation that needs to be happening in California right now.

Rachael Myrow: And I suppose, too, that there are households where people regularly talk about politics of all kinds, local, regional, national, all of it.

Jenny Wagner: Exactly, that kind of personal relationship is the most influential way to get someone to vote. If someone you care about talks to you about voting, you’re going to do it. You want to please them, you admire them, you’re going to get out and participate. And, it’s kind of unfortunate that California isn’t more of a swing state, because often there’s more energy and attention placed on local and regional elections in that case. And so, if you have a hotbed of activity, you’re more likely to have people participating. So, if you live in a community that has discussion groups and parades, and people are talking about it, and it’s on the local news, then they’re just more likely to feel excited and participate.

Rachael Myrow: Well, it’s interesting that you mention local news, because I happen to know that journalists who are focused on local and regional news spend an awful lot of time and effort trying to interest potential voters in races and measures on the ballot. What are we doing wrong, if we’re not reaching so many people?

Jenny Wagner: Well, I don’t think it’s necessarily that you’re doing it wrong, but you’re really focusing on the third of voters who are going to participate, no matter what. They will hear absolutely nothing, and they will still seek it out and they will go vote. But, there’s another two-thirds of voters that either never vote, they’re not even registered, or they’re registered, but they’re not always participating. That two-thirds really needs to have more basic information. They need to hear in particular from people that they know and trust why they should get engaged.

Rachael Myrow: So, you’re saying it’s not entirely our fault; people need to help out their friends and family members?

Jenny Wagner: Yeah, you need to make voting personal. It shouldn’t sound like something that only people dressed up in suits with higher education degrees can understand. And so, finding ways that people can both feel comfortable with the voting process, so that it’s not like taking a test, so that they’re not going to do it ‘wrong’ and fail, so that they know that they can do it multiple times, that you can, you know, turn in your ballot and they’ll give you another one if you make a mistake. Or, that you can bring notes and get help from friends. But, that it’s an accessible thing that they can figure out. So that they can feel comfortable talking to their neighbors, to people that they’re in book groups with, really making it not just an intellectual process, but kind of a fun, personal one.

Rachael Myrow: You say that, but I find it a massive homework assignment that is kind of complicated and scary. And that’s because a lot of the issues are complicated, if not necessarily scary. I’m wondering if maybe in this day and age, when so many things are made palatable, and we have so many forms of entertainment, that folks just have an unreasonable expectation that participatory democracy should be easy.

Jenny Wagner: Well, let me give you a couple of examples of how you can make it much more fun and accessible. People picture elections as being people in suits and talking to each other. And certainly there’s a place for that, or reading a formal newspaper. But the League has been working to partner with local community groups. So, for example, we’ve been working with a non-profit called Yoga Votes. They found that within the yoga community, there’s a lot of people who’ve distanced themselves from politics. They say, “I like how peaceful and centered I feel on the mat,” and they didn’t make the connection that if they’re going to be thoughtful and trying to bring about change in themselves, they can also do that within their community.

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