I Don't Think America Wants Me to Vote

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I nearly didn’t vote this election, despite trying as hard as I possibly could.

I’ve been excited about the midterm elections, mostly because I’ve never seen the U.S. so psyched about midterms in my life. One survey found 40 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds plan on “definitely” voting in this election, which is apparently a kind of recent record. Like me, many of my friends are concerned about the environment (among other things) and want to make out voices heard.

But I doubt my vote will make it into the election this year. I’m registered to vote in New York, but I’m with my family in Illinois at the moment. I sent in my absentee ballot request three weeks ago, but the ballot arrived at my parents' house Friday afternoon. When my mom called a New York county clerk's office to find out if my ballot would get to New York in time, they told her that it was too late.

Last night, I looked up the rules and discovered the clerk was wrong. I had a few hours left. So I sent in the ballot, but I was mad. I was mad they’d mailed the ballot so last minute, mad I only had a few hours to figure out what boxes I wanted to check, and mad the clerk gave my mom false information. The U.S. didn’t seem to want me to vote.

People complain that young people don’t vote. But America makes voting hard for young people. You have to register ahead of time. You have to figure out all the particular complicated rules for documentation and registration, which vary by state. And as an early career employee, you have to convince your boss to let you take time off work to actually go to the polls. Young people are more likely to move around, meaning they have to either re-register or figure out the complications of absentee ballots.

Some may say that these things aren't tough enough obstacles to warrant not voting. And most young people who want to vote DO overcome them. But all these things make voting harder for young people, and behavioral economics research shows that making things even just a bit harder will cause less people (of any age group) to bother. If older people had to re-register every election, they would vote much less too.

Maybe I was just overlooked. Twice. But these kinds of tangled voting messes happen all the time, both to disenfranchised groups and the population at large. North Dakota isn’t letting many Native American vote because they don’t have addresses. Some polling places make people wait hours to vote. Absentee ballots are being sent too late. And why on earth is voting on a weekday anyway? The list goes on. Politicans present some of these things as simple incompetence, but I’m not sure anyone really buys that. Other countries seem to manage.

A year or two ago, I spent a couple weeks with hunter-gatherers in the Amazon. As I was taking a bus out of the rainforest one Saturday, I noticed that one bus stop in the middle of the jungle was filled with a massive crowd, including many people in their 20s and 30s.

“What’s going on?” I asked the guy sitting next to me.

“It’s election day,” he told me. “They bus indigenous people out of the jungle so they can vote.”