By Halima Aquino. M.A.
Editor’s note: “Why Don’t People Vote” is the second in a series of articles from the VEEP Center for Democracy Initiatives following up on a research project completed by the Voter Education and Engagement Project (VEEP).
One seemingly straightforward question about why people do or do not vote or participate in civics is essentially about why people do or do not know how to generate community solutions by communicating with their local government leaders. The answers we generated over months of study led us on a deceptively complex odyssey, searching for answers and creative, uncharted solutions.
The more we learned from our survey during the election of 2016, the more we posed additional and targeted questions to leaders, activists, parents and youth. We saw opportunity for positive change based on the deep problems we discovered. We drew our curiosity from the fact that these citizens had both an opportunity and a significant need to be better treated as equal citizens in American society.
Essentially, we took a comprehensive view of why 67% of registered Democratic Latino voters in Fresno County voted only 0–2 times in the prior five elections.
Studies about happiness around the world suggest that citizens need to trust their leaders to feel safe, secure and happy in their communities. People need to believe that they have control over their circumstances or that they have internal or external tools to effect change. They need to feel that opportunities for success exist and that they will have support from their community. They need to be treated fairly and equitably.
America’s founding fathers understood happiness. They believed that our democratic republic could achieve the impossible through its system of government, as outlined by the Constitution, which is essentially a tool that describes a goal and structure for our society. It does not have an operational manual because that is for us to flexibly determine and change over time.
A democratic republic’s success is structured to facilitate basic communication between citizens and their government through civic activities, including voting so that society can better reflect its people and their needs. However, typical voter participation rates are frequently below 30% in some parts of the country.
Without productive communication between a government and its people, a democratic republic essentially becomes non-operational. In practical terms, this means that the relationship is not only unsatisfying, but mistrust and misunderstandings in our society spur chaos when people expect something they cannot get.
We know that people need to get involved in a relationship with their government to facilitate change when leaders do their job because 1) democratic societies demand a working relationship between citizens and their government, 2) the government is not solving basic local problems on its own and 3) the relationship between citizens and their leaders is broken.
We assume that people’s healthy and functional self-identity, beliefs, goals, knowledge, skills and behavior are necessary components for achieving success in democracy. People must believe that their communities could be better places to live if government and politicians enact proactive and responsive policies and legislation to improve societal conditions. If they believe that all “laws and regulations are bad” and that “government does nothing,” they will be less hopeful.
We will review some results here based on our survey and follow-up.
Self-identity: It is useful to note that in the context of a conversation about voting and community problems, voters did not to identify with their “citizen role” in democracy. In other words, they did not see themselves as the principal focus of their constitution, government and society. They spoke about the obligations that they might have toward the people who run the government instead of the other way around.
Interestingly, elected official and candidate volunteers and staff sometimes describe citizens and voters as if those citizens and voters owe them something when, in fact, citizens hold the highest status in American society relative to the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government. The Supreme Court interprets the constitution, but the whole system was designed to serve citizens.
The closest voters came to articulating a superior role as members of a valued group of citizens in their society was when they said they thought everyone should “vote to make a difference” or “vote to represent themselves.” However, when asked to describe what was meant by “making a difference” they had difficulty explaining further.
We asked people what they do to communicate with government and specifically in which of 15 civic actions they had engaged. We asked them about their personal desire to effect change in their neighborhoods. The people who engaged in more civic activities voted more¾even among low-propensity voters.
One of the worst things we learned was that low-propensity voters typically expect that their leaders will treat people them differently—basically worse than everyone else. They base this viewpoint on the differences they perceive in the services that their neighborhoods receive versus those received by other neighborhoods. They do not expect things to change because things have not changed in decades.
The residents of one town consistently told us that their water was too brown to drink or to wash their clothes. They did not know why this was so. They didn’t know why it had gone on for more than a decade. They did not expect anyone to do anything about it.
Some people told us about their cracked streets and how that took a toll on their cars. They did not see the point in asking their political leaders, who never fixed the problem in the past, to be responsive to their requests now. They do not believe that people who care to solve problems run for office.
Knowledge: In truth, citizens have an expertise in society that is unmatched by any other authority. Their expertise is on their lives and society. They named categories of issues that they considered important, such as youth programs, security, infrastructure and neighborhood safety, more recreation, economic development, homes for the homeless, more permanent teachers, safer alleyways and better schools, and relevant language and job training programs for the community and former criminals.
The most important thing that low-propensity voters do not know is what their leaders can do for them and who they can trust. They do not understand civics because they want to see change happen organically. They sometimes reward politicians for doing a good job, but they stay home and get irritated with politicians who never bring relief.
Goals: We asked people what they hoped to change if they had all the money and time in the world. From these answers, we learned about people’s deepest concerns and how they think about solving problems.
Essentially, we learned that people are deeply passionate about their communities and that they have elaborate ways of solving problems that do not involve their politicians. They use their own resourcefulness and rely on friends, family and neighbors, and in some cases even gang members, who insist that they will help people in their neighborhood rather than have the neighborhood rely on the police.
Beliefs and expectations: We hypothesized that people who register and do not vote do not understand or perceive that their government, its leaders and their political parties are, in fact, their most useful resources. We asked them to name people in their lives who could solve the problems that they detected in their communities.
People did not know or trust their politicians to help them with pressing community problems. They did not know 1) who their leaders are, 2) what they do, 3) what problems they could solve, 4) how policy affects change, 5) what political parties do and 6) how media could help. Essentially, they did not want to “fail the test.” They did not “have enough time to study.”
We reject the notion that citizen voters must be academically educated to participate or do well, though there are things they must learn. We learned that citizens feel many things on Election Day that might keep them at home.
They might choose not to vote because of fear or a lack of knowledge about any of the following:
- who the candidates are
- which candidates are lying about offering to help the community
- whether they can be fired for voting or voting the wrong way
- if their ballot is confidential
- whether the rules allow them to vote in Spanish
- if notes can be taken into the voting booth
- where to vote because the polling site changed from the previous election
- whether they can vote even if they are registered but didn’t receive information in the mail
- misinformation that states you can vote by e-mail/text
- that not voting typically helps the wrong people
- that you can vote by mail or call your political party for a ride to the poll
To be continued in subsequent issues of the Community Alliance.
Halima Aquino is the founder of the VEEP Center for Democracy Initiatives. She received her master’s in systems psychology as part of a doctoral program in clinical psychology at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. She grew up in Fresno and recently returned to her roots. Visit the VEEP Facebook page at Fresno County VEEP.