The results of the 2020 presidential election will have sweeping effects on American health. The wellbeing of all Americans hangs in the balance: COVID-19 management, the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and environmental policy would look starkly different under each candidate’s administration. With the stakes so high for so many, democratic engagement (i.e., voting) is more important than ever. Every American deserves for their voice to be heard. Activists can use relational organizing skills (like storytelling, peer-to-peer texting, and super volunteers) to mobilize potential voters whom they already know.
Why don’t people vote?
In the 2016 presidential election, 100 million eligible Americans did not vote. There are many factors that can influence electoral participation. Most citizens report that they’ve never been asked to register. According to a 2020 study from Knight Foundation, many non-voters express skepticism about the effectiveness of voting; they feel like their vote doesn't matter, or that the overall democratic system is rigged. Some have no interest in politics at all. Others proclaim that they don’t like either of the proposed candidates, or admit to not knowing much about them.
While plenty of eligible Americans “opt out” of voting, there are some institutional barriers that make it especially difficult for disadvantaged populations to vote. A 2020 Global Citizen article identifies some common problems that can prevent people from voting. Many states require certain forms of ID to vote. For instance, in Texas, hunting permits are acceptable, but student IDs are not. More than 21 million Americans lack the necessary ID to cast a ballot, and the young, poor, and disabled are more likely to struggle to obtain the ID they need (due to finances or lack of transportation).
Some states don’t allow online voter registration, which poses a problem for people without transportation. Additionally, many citizens don’t know what materials they need to register, and those without internet cannot simply “look it up.” Across America, disenfranchisement (depriving people of their voting right) is rampant: electoral officials in states like New York, Georgia, and Wisconsin have unregistered hundreds of thousands of eligible voters, often because they haven’t voted in a few years; people of color are often disproportionately purged from electoral rolls.
In the midst of a pandemic, there are far fewer in-person registration drives, and many are uncomfortable with voting in person; mail-in voting may be undermined by the current administration’s defunding of the USPS.
Who doesn’t vote?
By and large, non-voters are a mixed bag.
According to a 2018 report from More in Common, while there are both staunchly conservative and liberal non-voters (who are attuned to politics), the bulk fall within “the exhausted majority.” Among them are “passive liberals” who are most concerned about racism, healthcare, and poverty; they tend to be politically uninformed, dissatisfied, and feel that they have no control over their circumstances. The “politically disengaged” tend to be low-income, are more likely to lack adequate access to nutrition and healthcare, are prone to us-versus-them narratives, and care most about gun violence, the economy, and terrorism.
In terms of demographics, 65% of potential voters are white, 15% are Hispanic, and 13% are Black. Approximately 44% of people who don’t vote earn less than $50,000 annually (17% of poll respondents chose not to disclose their income). And 34% of non-voters are aged over 56 years old.
Many of America’s non-voters are the ones whose health could be most affected by the upcoming election results. People of color are more likely to die from COVID than white people, and the elderly are also more vulnerable. Further, repeal of the ACA could leave millions without insurance, including the impoverished, elderly, and ill. Climate change will worsen fires, storms, and droughts, and disadvantaged communities have a harder time recovering from natural disasters. Additionally, people of lower socioeconomic status and the elderly are more likely to experience health problems from coal pollution and intense heat.
Mobilizing Potential Voters
Potential voters vary demographically and ideologically. To encourage a person to vote, connection is crucial—identify why they’re hesitant to vote, what they care about, and how they could be impacted by the election outcome. While the values of the “passive liberal” and “politically disengaged” non-voters are quite different, both groups tend to be low-income and have diminished healthcare access.
Relational organizing describes the process of talking to friends, family, or coworkers about shared values in a non-confrontational way, with the ultimate goal of enacting community change. Storytelling is a relational organizing strategy that gives voice to a person’s lived experiences and can prompt empathy from the listener. Using narrative to talk about an issue can make it more approachable for people who are wary of politics, or encourage a person to consider an opposing viewpoint.
The onset of COVID has made canvassing (door-to-door) less practical, and “cold-calling” is often less effective than reaching out to people in your networks. Friend-to-friend / peer-to-
peer outreach can take many forms. Connect with people you know by texting or calling them, or schedule a COVID-friendly meeting to discuss their beliefs and the upcoming election. You can also contact potential super volunteers (respected community figures, people with large social media followings, etc.) who could initiate non-confrontational discussions with potential voters.
Without being condescending, explain to potential voters how they could be impacted by the election results, and then empower them by emphasizing that their vote absolutely matters. Without it, the changes they want to see are less likely to occur.
Encourage people who claim to be registered to verify their status (there is still time to register!). Most states offer online registration, and the national mail voter form is available online. In-person registration is available at local election offices. There is also still time to request an absentee ballot.
Every American deserves health and healthcare access. Aside from participating in the presidential election, other forms of democratic engagement can empower community members to create the changes that they desire. It doesn’t take massive canvassing to mobilize potential voters. Send a text or share a story with a friend to open the door to discussion.