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What Makes A Person Vote (Or Not Vote)?

Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio
The Meadowview and The Pocket neighborhoods in Sacramento are split by Freeport Blvd and Interstate 5.

Like coffee and scotch, voting is an acquired taste. Recently, as part of our California Counts election coverage, we looked at two adjacent San Diego neighborhoods where race and income affect who turns out to vote – and who doesn’t.

This week, we explore the psychology behind those statistics. 

Eduardo Marcos leans against his car on the edge of the Home Depot parking lot on a recent afternoon.

“I honestly don’t feel like it makes much of a difference,” says Marcos. He’s 22, and doesn’t vote.

Raymond Lewis says he feels the same.

“All the politicians are for the rich, and they’re not for the poor,” says Lewis, as he was catching the bus to get to work. “And black people have been poor since we first got here, or since we were first brought here. So, me voting isn’t going to make a difference.”

Jesse Reese, a retired sheet metal worker and head of the Meadowview Neighborhood Association, says that sentiment is common.

“‘It doesn’t matter and my vote doesn’t count’— we hear a lot of that, all the time,” says Reese.

He laments this disinterest in the political system.

“Because it’s going to be there, whether you like it or not,” he says. “So, it can turn in your favor or not in your favor, depending on who you elect.”

But Reese says he’s unsure how to motivate the community. In Meadowview, a working-class neighborhood almost evenly comprised of black, white, Asian and Latino residents, only about 45 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the 2014 general election. That’s 15 percent lower than the turnout one minute west, over the freeway.

The Pocket is a whiter, more-affluent neighborhood, hugged by the Sacramento River, noteworthy for parks and trees and monogrammed gates.

“If something happens in government and I haven’t voted, I don’t have any right to complain,” says Walter Newport, a retired professor walking out of Bel Air Market.

The same goes for state worker Stacy Vanina-Everson.

“If you’re taking a big piece of my income, I want to be damn sure that you’re going to do something good with it,” she says.

The dynamic in Meadowview and the Pocket is similar to two San Diego neighborhoods profiled in a previous California Counts story, Kensington and Teralta.

It’s well-known that race, income, age and education play an important role in who votes and who doesn’t. Less understood are the reasons why.

In the Pocket, Will Cannady, a high school teacher who’s active on local community issues, describes a civic peer-pressure in the neighborhood.

“It’s contagious, especially when you put a lot of people that have the same views, same opinions,” Cannady says. “You’re going to over and over again see a lot of people who want to act on that if they see their neighbors doing the same thing.”

Cannady is describing how voting is a social behavior, says Menlo College professor Melissa Michelson. She studies what drives people to the polls. Michelson says most people learn to engage in the political process from family, friends or in college.

Michelson says most people learn to engage in the political process from family, friends or in college.

“There’s just a lot of cognitive barriers to voting," she says.

She lists the steps involved — filling out the registration form, learning about the candidates and propositions and showing up to the right polling place on the right day.

“And so, if you’re not from a community where voting is the norm, if you’re not from a family where your parents took you to the polling place when you were a little kid, if you haven’t gone to college and developed those cognitive skills, then we’re really asking a lot of voters,” says Michelson.

Mai Yang Vang says she understands the barriers firsthand. She’s Hmong-American, from Meadowview and the first in her family to go to college. That’s where she learned to vote. Now, she’s a community organizer. She remembers trying to help an elder in the Hmong community, who was also a non-English speaker, register to vote.

“So basically she was saying, ‘I’m an elder and I don’t know how to fill out this form, and I’m dumb,’” says Vang.

Vang believes most non-voters want to engage, even the people who say it doesn’t matter. She says it takes a different kind of education.

“You just got to make it really personal,” she says. She talks to voters about local, community issues.

She asks them questions like, “Do you live in the city? Do you notice trash in your neighborhood? Did you know there’s a big vote that’s happening at the school district, and your siblings go to this school?”

But that kind of individual outreach is mostly done by campaigns, which want the most bang for their buck.

They tend to focus on people who have gone to the polls consistently for four or five elections. That’s the Pocket. It is not Meadowview.

“Because members of those communities don’t vote, they are ignored,“Michelson says.

In a collaboration called California CountsCapital Public Radio, KPBS, KQED and KPCC provide coverage of the 2016 election. 

Copyright 2016 Capital Public Radio