Information gaps can become lost votes

Sometimes people don’t vote because they don’t get the information they need in time.

Earlier this year, we ran user research sessions with new voters – people who voted for the first time in 2010 or 2012. We talked about whether voting was important to them (and why), how they registered, and their experience taking part in elections.

As we started to review their election stories, we suddenly realized that 3 of the 16 had wanted to vote in the November 2012 General Election, but even with a strong intention, and trying to participate, were not able to.

Three out of 16, or almost 20%. That shocked us.

The disclaimers: Our participants were a convenience sample of new voters who were either under 24 years old or new U.S. citizens. There’s a strong likelihood that their experiences made them more likely to volunteer to be part of our study.

Even with a small group of people, their stories are instructive. We think they show some of the gaps in information about elections and the complexity of election procedures.

To vote, people have to break their normal routines and make at least a small effort to participate. They do so knowing that they are just one voice among many, and that their individual vote probably won’t make a difference in the election results. So, even if each speed bump (or outright barrier) only causes a small number of people drop out, it adds up to a lot of lost votes.

Alexander was a young AmeriCorps volunteer in November 2012. As he moved around the country with his group, he registered to vote in the state where his corps was based, but by election time they were in a new location, and he had to request an absentee ballot. By the time it caught up with him, it was almost Election Day. When he looked online after the election, he saw that his ballot did not arrive in time to be counted.

Morad was looking forward to voting for the first time, after becoming a citizen in 2010. He was held over on a business trip in France. His solution was to go the embassy, where he learned that in his state he could vote on the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot. He cast a ballot but was not able to vote in the local contests he cared about using the FWAB.

Silvia registered to vote at her citizenship swearing-in ceremony, and was looking forward to voting for the first time. On Election Day, she could not find her voter registration card and the address of her polling place. She thought she needed to bring it with her to vote, and didn’t know how to even find out where to go to vote. So, she gave up.

It would be easy to say that Alexander put things off until the last minute, Morad should have voted absentee before leaving on a business trip, or Silvia could have looked up the information.

But if these sorts of failures of process and information happen to people who actively want to vote, it’s easy to see how easy it might be for similar problems to keep less persistent voters from casting a ballot.


This research was made possible with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.