Who’s not voting?

Some are disengaged, but procedural barriers also a factor

By: - November 2, 2020 6:24 am

This year lawmakers in Nevada expanded access to the ballot by making the state the sixth with permanent universal mail-in voting. But states with GOP-controlled legislatures have seen a wave of new restrictions on voting. (Nevada Current file photo)

There are more than 2.1 million eligible voters in Nevada, and while roughly half of them have already voted, with more voting on Election Day, history has shown that many will not.

Four years ago, Nevada’s voter turnout rate among eligible voters was about 57 percent, one of the worst in the country, and it’s 46 percent rate in 2018’s midterms was even worse.

Despite a large majority of Americans viewing the election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden as “the most important one of their lifetime so farabout two fifths of eligible voters will likely fail to cast a ballot in the election, as has become the norm in the U.S.

Alejandra “Janita” Agosto, 33, has never voted and said she isn’t sure if she’s going to vote in this election either. Agosto, a mother of three, was laid off from her job at Boulder Station Hotel and Casino in May when Station Casinos announced they would lay off 39 percent of their workforce due to COVID shutdowns, and has not been hired back since.

“I’m just waiting for them to call,” Agosto said. 

Nonvoters are frequently frowned upon, or scowled at, especially since the 2016 election. 

But who votes — and who doesn’t — is driven by “systematic drivers and demographics factors that exist across time and space,” as Professor David Damore, chair of UNLV’s political science department, puts it.

The biggest predictors for someone participating in politics are levels of education, age, and residential stability, said Damore.

“If you think about Nevada, it’s 46th in college attainment and has a really transient population and some segments of the state’s population, particularly Latinos, are relatively young,” he said. “Even in the last couple of cycles when you’ve had all this money pumped in and all these efforts to register and make voting easier, participation levels are still well below the national average.”

Agosto said more than disliking or liking presidential candidates, she feels intimidated by the political process and would rather leave voting to people who are more informed.

“The news comes on about this stuff and I feel more and more lost,” Agosto said.

Although she does think this election is important, it’s not her top priority, especially amid the pandemic and its consequences. Agosto lives with her mom who emigrated from Guatemala and her three daughters in a two bedroom apartment just like she did before Trump was elected. Her children’s virtual schooling has also taken a lot of her energy.

“This one needs help and that one needs help and you’re doing something else over here,” Agosto said. “The middle one needs a lot of help, she doesn’t take notes like her sister.”

In the past few years Nevada has greatly expanded voter access, expanding early voting, same-day registration, and implementing universal polling places and automatic voter registration. And while the voting average in the state during presidential election years has increased since 2000, it has consistently failed to clear 50 percent. Turnout for midterms is similarly well below the national average.

Damore calls nonvoters “wishy washy” and characterizes the group as moderate. Despite the occasional characterization the nonvoter as an ideological purist a view furthered by the fact that one of the most common reasons why eligible voters neglected to vote in 2016 was that they didn’t like either candidate Damore said that is a small fraction of the nonvoter contingency.  Traditional nonvoters are more likely to be uninformed about politics and lack strong partisanship or an ideological label.

Data on voting and registration collected every two years by the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, can provide a snapshot of behavior across demographics throughout the last several decades of federal elections, including self-reported information on registration, demographics of voters. 

While state-level CPS data have a higher margin of error than the survey’s national estimates, understanding the composition of who votes and who doesn’t in Nevada can provide clues for how political winds may shift over time.

The share of U.S. citizens ages 18 and older who cast a ballot varies widely across racial and ethnic groups in Nevada. Historically, white adults have the highest rate of voter turnout. In Nevada, Black adults have also had relatively high rates of voter turnout during presidential elections, at times even exceeding or matching that of white voters. By contrast, Asian and Hispanic adults have had historically lower voter turnout rates in the state. 

“One of the interesting things about immigrant-heavy populations is they lack the key socialization, if you will,” Damore said. “You’re learning a whole new system. A lot of people’s participation in politics is socialized into them either positively or negatively growing up,” said Damore, who has worked with Latino Decisions on researching the Latino vote.

Nevada has a large foreign-born population accounting for about 19 percent of the population in 2018. Jose Garcia, 37, is an inconstant voter. Since becoming a U.S. citizen, he’s voted in 2008 for Barack Obama and will vote again this year for Joe Biden. He said he doesn’t vote in midterms. He recently bought his first horse and said he wants his daughters to experience some of the rural lifestyle from his native Mexico.

“It’s just that the culture is different in Mexico, voting is different. Politics isn’t something that I’m passionate about,” Garcia said in his native Spanish.

The racial disparities among voters in midterm elections is even more stark, with Black, Asian, and Hispanic eligible voters turning out at much lower rates than white voters. 

“Another problem with marginal voters is that they might get mobilized in the short term then they get sort of forgotten about next time around or if the races aren’t competitive,” said Damore, adding that a lack of investment causes participation in Latino and Asian populations to fall off.

“The silver lining is the habit of voting. Once you get people to overcome these perceived barriers to participation then you typically find that people will begin to develop the habit of voting.” 

In the 2018 midterm elections youth turnout in Nevada grew dramatically, possibly creating a new crop of consistent voters. Voting rates among Nevadans aged 18 to 24 went from 18 percent in 2014 to 32 percent in 2018 a 14 point increase, according to estimates from the Current Population Survey.

Some analysis estimated an even larger increase in youth voter participation. Research on youth turnout from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, found that the overall 2018 turnout rate for eligible young voters (ages 18-29) in Nevada increased by 19.9 percent.

Voting-rights groups say that more can still be done to improve access in Nevada. 

Laura Martin, director of PLAN Action, said after years of barriers to voting like registration deadlines and a lack of early voting locations in communities of color, it’s no surprise that Nevada has one of the worst tracks for voting participation. 

“It’s our hope at PLAN Action that we don’t just have universal mail in voting during the pandemic but for always,” Martin said, adding that states that use mail-in ballots as their primary method of voting, like Colorado and Oregon, have consistently high voter turnout.

“As long as we make it easier to register and vote we’re going to see those numbers increase,” Martin said. “I want people to know low voter participation isn’t necessarily apathy, while that certainly exists. There are also barriers to participation and every election we just have to make sure to keep tearing them down.”

Nevada State Coordinator for Mi Familia Vota Maria Nieto Orta said the group actively reaches out to Latino nonvoters, whose biggest barrier to voting is language.

Only Clark and Washoe County offer ballots in different languages, and even then anyone who wants a ballot in another language must either fill out a registration form in a separate language, request it in writing, or fill out a language preference form, all hurdles for chronic nonvoters.

“A lot of people will have questions about voting but feel discouraged to even ask, and we can’t blame people for not asking when they don’t even know who to ask,” Nieto Orta said.

One of the most effective methods of reaching nonvoters is through a trusted contact, said Nieto Orta.

“It is hard to pinpoint nonvoters,” Nieto Orta said, adding that activating nonvoters requires continuous contact and the organization has sent out canvassers this election cycle.

“We’re expecting a big turnout this year,” Nieto Orta said.

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Jeniffer Solis
Jeniffer Solis

Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.