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Voter Participation: How Financial Status Can Severely Impact Election Turnout


 

According to the Pew Research Center, the 2016 presidential election in the United States was comprised of about 137.5 million votes. As a percentage of the total US population that is eligible to vote, that results in about a 61.4% share. For those who are unfamiliar with the voting system, such abysmal numbers for a developed nation are surprisingly common for US elections. The US trails countries including Belgium, Canada, Australia, and even poverty-stricken Mexico for the voting-age population (VAP) turnout, again as per Pew Research statistics.

 

However, it is important to note that legalizing mandatory voting would not necessarily be the best option for the States. Instead, a thorough evaluation of the US’s low-income communities would be an ideal place to start in order to truly examine and discern patterns of VAP turnout as it relates to financial status and race. As someone deeply interested in computer science and programming, as well as in political science and government, I felt I ought to address the problem of such prevalent voter inequality. In order to work on this unique intersection of interests, I took advantage of the Python programming language which let me analyze and collect turnout, poverty, and population data.

 

While there are a multitude of resources online with data on these three characteristics, finding an updated source that would offer me credible and formatted information that matches with each county’s and state’s FIPS (Federal Information Processing Standard Publication) code was difficult to find. With persistence, I was able to collect poverty data from the US Department of Agriculture, The Guardian, Numeracy, the Census Bureau, and the US Elections Project. After aggregating each piece of data, I was able to develop graphs that show the percentages of people in poverty and percentages of minorities versus the 2016 turnouts in states and counties. The graphs make it easy to notice the dramatic decrease in voter turnout as poverty becomes more commonplace in each county, or as disadvantaged minorities become more prevalent in each state. These trends seem to suggest a correlation between low voter turnout and high poverty rates, and vice versa.

 

Still, these observations are not just correlations: they have indeed become justifications for why certain voters decide to not go through the hassle of voting. As The Atlantic reports, “Black and Hispanic citizens, for whom the poverty rate is close to three times that of whites,” cite obstacles of requiring correct identification at polling places and the difficulty in finding such polling places to be among the top reasons for why they are prohibited from exercising their right to vote. “They were more than three times as likely as whites to not receive a requested absentee ballot, and roughly twice as likely to be out of town on Election Day or to have to wait in long lines” writes Daniel Weeks, the author of The Atlantic article titled “Why Are the Poor and Minorities Less Likely to Vote?”

 

As I thought more about voter turnout and the politics behind what could be affecting so many people’s right to vote, I remembered a friend of mine who went to Milpitas High School, Kashov Sharma. Someone who is always willing to engage in a debate about every nook and cranny of the United States’ government, Kashov is heavily experienced in the field of law and politics, especially for a high schooler. A radio show host and a member of Agents for Change, Kashov works for a local grassroots organization sponsored by our area’s Representative, Ro Khanna. After asking Kashov if financial status makes a serious dent in voter turnout, he replied “Yes – I think it has a big effect for the extremes. If you live below the poverty line, then you won’t vote. But if you are living paycheck to paycheck, or if especially your financial status has degraded only recently, then you will still vote,” providing the example of a recently laid off factory worker. I then proceeded to directly ask Kashov what he thinks is the true root cause for low average voter participation in the US. While also mentioning a lack of knowledge about politics and the frequent tainting of “politicians as greedy and politics as dirty,” Kashov believes that the primary reason for low voter turnout is the culture around the voting system and how it is “outdated or old or broken.”

 

As we examine Kashov’s reasoning along with the issues that The Atlantic and the Pew Research Center provided us, we see two different sets of problems that translate to a correlation of financial status and voter turnout. The first is how those that live below the poverty line, or those that are racial minorities, often lack the resources that allow them to learn more about the voting process and what each candidate is running for. On the other hand, having the time and money to process the most basic voting documents is rare. In either case, there is a clear signal that the voting system must be fixed and modernized so that those who are interested in voting are able to do so with ease.

 

Currently, some interesting movements that may help the US with this issue include efforts that make voter registration easier and simpler. One such option would be to, for example, allow for online voter registration. While it is an improvement that has shown so much potential, it surprisingly has not become standardized on the federal level. To learn more about how you or someone you know can register to vote, I encourage you to visit www.vote.gov/. If you are less than 18 years old, you can also find out how to pre-register at www.usa.gov/voter-registration-age-requirements. Finally, contact your local US Representative or Senator to push for easier access to voting resources. As the more fortunate residents of the United States, it is our moral duty to ask how we can bring about voter equality to the whole nation.

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COMMENTS: 29
  1. April 26, 2018 by lucas

    Your data paints a clear picture of the problem. Where is your dataset from? Pew?

    I love your idea for online voter registration, it’s critical. What do you think about online voting in general like in Estonia?

    • May 02, 2018 by Nakul Bajaj

      Hi lucas,

      My dataset, as I mentioned in my article, comes from a variety of different sources. I found county-based poverty rates from the US Department of Agriculture, voter turnout data from The Guardian, Numeracy, and the US Elections Project. I also used data from the Census Bureau to find the racial percentages of state populations.

      I think online voting is headed in the right direction, and that while much more needs to be done before the vast majority of nations can adopt large-scale e-voting options, e-voting is definitely going to be part of the future. It is indeed a question of when rather than if. Something that caught my eye recently, and something that you might be interested in, was how Sierra Leone held the very first blockchain-based election to keep partisan-independence during the voting process.

      Awesome questions!

  2. April 27, 2018 by Audrey

    Your topic is really interesting and especially prevalent in today’s society. Voter ID laws also add to this issue by both costing people more money and making obtaining the correct documents a major burden. I’m glad that you’re bringing attention to this giant problem!

  3. April 27, 2018 by Emma Mansoor

    Your topic is really great. It is so relevant to today’s current climate. I like that you used data in your presentation. it helped me get a better feel for what you were saying. I think that you also chose a problem that’s not discussed too often, which definitely made it more interesting.

  4. April 27, 2018 by Alison Selman

    This is very interesting and I really like your graphs. I wish the US had significantly higher voter turnout than it currently does and as someone who registered to vote less than a month ago, I think that the process definitely needs to become easier.

  5. April 27, 2018 by Vivian

    Your data is super interesting! What other factors do you think impact election turnout? Online voter registration seems like a clever idea. Has it been implemented elsewhere (on a different level of government or in a different country)?

    • May 02, 2018 by Nakul Bajaj

      Hi Vivian,

      I believe that as my friend, Kashov, pointed out, there seems to be some stigma associated for some people with voting or anything related to US government and policy.

      Online voter registration has actually been implemented for most states in the US, but it still has not become federally mandated, and so people in the states without online voter registration lack access to this simple but convenient online option.

  6. April 28, 2018 by Jeremy

    Hey! Super interesting project. I think part of the problem is that low-income people have been victim to a sort of vicious cycle in our politics— they feel that the government isn’t providing for them, so they feel no drive to participate in elections, and because they don’t participate in elections, the government has no incentive to help them. Of course, the issue spans both parties, but Republicans especially have incentive suppress low-income and minority voters (of which we’ve seen plenty of evidence, through voter ID laws, redistricting, and etc.), since both demographics overwhelmingly vote Democrat.

    • May 02, 2018 by Nakul Bajaj

      Couldn’t have put it better, Jeremy. While I tried to stay neutral and unbiased throughout this paper, I think there has been much more evidence of GOP tampering with turnout rates since a lower turnout seems to help them in elections. Lower turnouts allow for a greater portion of voters to come from either upper or middle class backgrounds who benefit from GOP policies much more in the short-term as compared to lower class individuals.

  7. April 29, 2018 by Esther Bedoyan

    I really like your message and political pitch in this article. I think your graph of the scatterplot shows really clearly the correlation between low voter turnout and poverty in the US. I totally agree that if our voting system is to run as democratically as possible, we need to increase voter turnout equity. Nice essay!

    • May 02, 2018 by Nakul Bajaj

      Thanks Esther!

  8. April 29, 2018 by Jimmy Chen

    Interesting article. It certainly seems to need a better system. Ideally it would both increase the turnout and prevent possible fraud.

  9. April 29, 2018 by Jason Chen

    I really enjoyed reading your article. It got me thinking about the voting system in HK.

    • May 02, 2018 by Nakul Bajaj

      I’m glad that it did! I am not so familiar with the voting system in Hong Kong, but I’d be open to learning more about it.

  10. April 29, 2018 by Melle.Koper

    Great message, you really backed your argument with your data.

    • May 02, 2018 by Nakul Bajaj

      Thanks Melle!

  11. April 29, 2018 by Justin.Chen

    The role of poverty in voting outcomes and participation is well described and elaborated in your article. The graphics on your article are extremely helpful for understanding your points. It is a great article that has clearly been the result of much hard work.

    • May 02, 2018 by Nakul Bajaj

      Thank you Justin!

  12. April 30, 2018 by Naoya.Okamoto

    I think it’s interesting that even though we live in the 21st century, there’s still some sense of the voting restrictions that came through literacy tests and poll taxes that continue to restrict voting turnout, even if they’re not directly implemented through the law.

    • May 02, 2018 by Nakul Bajaj

      Never thought about it this way – but after reading your comment it makes much more sense. This is a 21st century problem stuck with problems from the 20th century most likely because of our inability to use 21st century tools and advancements properly in this field.

  13. April 30, 2018 by Eva Motolinia

    You talked about how mandatory voting is not the best way to go for the United States, I was wondering why that is. When Australia implemented it, were there a lot of harms?

    • May 03, 2018 by Nakul.Bajaj

      Hi Eva,

      You’re absolutely right in the fact that mandatory voting may not be a perilous decision for the US government to make. However, in my paper, I first explain that using a blanket policy like mandatory voting may not necessarily be the best option. Rather than ruling out mandatory voting as a solution, I simply ask for a well-thought-out analysis to find the best option before deciding on a specific policy that should be implemented.

  14. April 30, 2018 by Huy Tran

    There is no voting system in Vietnam so this article captivates me. I think that the bubble graph is very creative.

    • May 03, 2018 by Nakul.Bajaj

      I appreciate that you were still able to find the article interesting – what are your personal opinions on voting and do you think it would be beneficial to bring voting to otherwise single-party states such as Vietnam?

  15. April 30, 2018 by BBracker

    Now I wonder, what are the ways in which race actually becomes a mechanism in inhibiting voting? Or is the correlation between minority status and voting less primarily caused by the economic status? I suppose another way to put it is that when the Atlantic article says “they were more than three times as likely as whites to not receive a requested absentee ballot, and roughly twice as likely to be out of town on Election Day or to have to wait in long lines,” are they talking about overall populations, which exhibit economic disparity, or did they actually test people of different races from the same economic status?

    • May 03, 2018 by Nakul.Bajaj

      I’m fairly certain that The Atlantic article is talking about overall populations – so you are correct in the sense that most voting inhibition for minorities likely comes from a correlation to their less privileged financial backgrounds than the color of their skin. However, my graphs therefore also help reveal just how systemic the issue of poverty as a function of race has become.

  16. April 30, 2018 by Ananth J Josyula

    Loved the scatter plot Nakul. Additionally, I especially liked how you dismissed the proposition of mandatory voting. Such a theory is simply barbaric and though often quoted simply presents no real solution.

  17. April 30, 2018 by Cole.Biafore

    Obviously getting people to come out to the polls to vote is very important and should be an effort made my everyone. The biggest question is to how to get this done. I know you said Mandatory Voting may not be the best approach to this issue and I may agree with you, but I was hoping you could maybe explain as to why you said this. While I might disagree with online voter registration, I think there are plenty of other ways to approach this. For your argument, it may be hard for those who are impoverished to obtain access to the internet to register to vote and ultimately plenty of other issues may arise. However, it is a concern that should be addressed and since it is a very delicate subject, it needs to be handled very carefully

    • May 03, 2018 by Nakul.Bajaj

      Hey Cole,

      As I explained to Eva, my intention was not to rule out mandatory voting as a solution, but simply to say that while most people may immediately think of mandatory voting as a general policy that can fix the problem immediately, we should first be examining the status of the voting system in the US and then making policy decisions based on the results of those inspections.

      Also, while I understand why online voter registration may not bolster turnout rates for poorer citizens in an impactful manner, I would actually argue that opening up the voting system in the US for all people would be a great place to start. Plus, this is a policy that middle and upper class individuals would be much more incentivized to support, considering that it also makes voting more convenient for them.

      Thanks!

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