Martino and Avella: Finding a remedy for voter cynicism

Unregistered citizens can be reached by appealing to concern for their children

November will bring a pivotal presidential election that will define and impact America for generations to come. The choice could not be clearer and the consequences no greater nor longer-lasting. Who wouldn’t vote in an election like this?

The answer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is almost 75 million people — or more than 36 percent of adult citizens — who did not vote in the elections of 2008. The majority of those Americans, almost 60 million, were not even registered to vote.

Why do so many citizens choose not to participate in one of the greatest gifts of our American democracy? And how can we inspire them not only to register to vote, but also to cast their ballots on Election Day?

The U.S. census tells us that the most common barriers to registration are age and duration of residence. However, in focus groups recently conducted by the Tarrance Group and the GOPAC Education Fund, it was revealed that what are in play are more fundamental and deep-seated barriers: cynicism and apathy.

Low-hanging fruit

For those inhibited by the common factors of age or duration of residence, these potential voters are “low-hanging fruit.” The campaigns, parties and organizations aiming to register voters leading up to this year’s elections can easily remove such barriers. For example, the U.S. census shows that younger adults as well as those who have lived at their current locations for shorter periods are less likely to be registered to vote. The Tarrance Group was involved in early work by the National Association of Secretaries of State’s New Millennium Project on this issue of registering young adults.

The findings from the New Millennium Project indicate that it is critical to teach young people the mechanics of how to register as well as how to vote. Many young adults who are not registered or do not vote are simply unfamiliar with how the voting process works. In many cases, this is because their parents never took them along to the voting booth. They do not know how one votes, nor did they grow up viewing voting as a responsibility of adulthood.

For those who have moved recently, the issue can be as simple as having forgotten to update their driver’s license (a requirement for voter registration in some states), or not remembering to register in their new locations until an election of significance comes along. Many of these unregistered adults can be identified by matching voter files against known residents. It may even come as a surprise to them that they are not registered.

Voter cynicism and apathy

Aside from the logistical hurdles to voter registration and voting, there lies a deeper problem for the “chronically unregistered.”

The GOPAC Education Fund recently sponsored two nights of focus groups among unregistered adults in Colorado and Nevada in order to understand the underlying reasons why so many adults do not register to vote, and to test potential messages that could motivate these citizens to do so.

What we learned through those two nights of focus groups is that many of these voters are highly negative and cynical toward politics in Washington, viewing many federal politicians as inept at best and corrupt at worst. Some are not sure that national elections even matter. They do not follow many national issues and fail to see how what happens in Washington impacts their daily lives. Finally, many do not fundamentally believe that their votes will make a difference or affect the outcome of an election.

Over the course of the focus groups, the participants would not concede that national politics matter. Even messages that tried to inject a sense of shame about being some of only a relative few Americans who remain unregistered fell on deaf ears, and appealing to a sense of patriotism and obligation to those who have and continue to fight for our freedom was rejected. In fact, focus group participants quickly argued that they are, in fact, exercising the freedom not to participate.

Engaging voters

Although baseball purists may cringe at the metaphor, the answer we discovered over the course of these focus groups is to play “small ball” with the chronically unregistered.