A new Pew Research Center report has some answers. They tracked down 181 registered voters who said they did not vote this year and asked them their reasons for doing so. While it's a smallish sample and we should be cautious about interpreting it too broadly, respondents gave some illuminating answers. Here's what they said:
A full two-thirds said they simply didn't have enough time to vote. More than half of this group - 35 percent of the total - said that scheduling conflicts with work or school kept them from getting to the polls last Tuesday. Another 34 percent of the total said they were simply too busy, or that they were sick, out of town, or forgot about election day.
Twenty percent said they didn't like the candidates, didn't know enough to vote, or simply didn't care. And another 10 percent said that technical difficulties kept them from the polls - a missed registration deadline, a recent move or lack of transportation.
In short, voters didn't make it to the polls for two overarching reasons - either they were indifferent and couldn't be bothered, or there were structural forces conspiring against them - rigid job/school schedules or difficulties with the voting process overall.
Tackling voter indifference is an evergreen problem - it's why campaigns spend millions on get-out-the-vote efforts. But these numbers suggest we can take steps to ease the structural difficulties with voting, too. Republican vote-suppression efforts have already received plenty of attention, and rightfully so - it's an embarrassment that one political party sees a smaller electorate as the path to victory.
But voters turned back at the polls represent at best a tiny fraction of the 10 percent who didn't vote for technical reasons. Pew's numbers suggest there's a lot of work to be done to help the 35 percent of voters who couldn't accommodate a trip to the polling place in their work or school schedules.
Requiring employers to allow flexible scheduling on voting days would be a good step toward fixing the problem. Federal workers already have some guarantee of this.
But even in the absence of legislation, companies could step up and simply encourage their employees to vote, too. Many apparently have no problem telling their staff who to vote for, so they could at least offer a little flex time for employees to consider their bosses' endorsements at the ballot box.
Other fixes range from making election day a national holiday (Vermont's Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill to do just that) to requiring eligible citizens to vote, as Australia does. In short there are any number of policy approaches to low turnout, ranging from an encouragement to a nudge to a full-on push. Our embarrassingly low turnout numbers suggest it's time to start seriously considering them.