Here's How to Overcome the Most Common Barriers to Voting
How to deal with long lines at the polls, making registration deadlines, and more.
A common refrain in American politics is "If you don't vote, don't complain," but the process of voting can be far easier for some than others. Structural barriers keep many people from the polls regardless of how much they want to vote, denying them a fundamental right in American democracy.
A 2020 poll from FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos found that the most common reasons people don't vote are often out of their control, including long lines at their polling places, an inability to get off work or find childcare, and not having transportation or being able to access their polling places. Missed deadlines for voter registration were also an issue. Respondents who rarely or never voted were more likely to be lower income, under 35 years old, have lower levels of educational attainment, and not identify with one particular political party.
Thrillist linked up with Carolyn DeWitt, the president and executive director of RockTheVote, to discuss why these types of structural barriers stop people from voting, and what kinds of resources are available to overcome them and help people exercise their fundamental rights.
Long Lines at Polling Places
The biggest reason that people of all ages, income brackets, and levels of education don't vote is encountering long lines at their polling stations. Each election cycle, reports emerge from different parts of the country about people being forced to wait an hour or more to vote.
"Since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, thousands of polling locations have been closed across the country, particularly in Black and brown neighborhoods," DeWitt told Thrillist. "These closures have led to long lines in some communities that make it more difficult for working families to cast a ballot."
The best way to avoid long lines? Voting early. Rules vary by state, but most have at least one option to vote before election day either in person, via mail, or through a ballot drop box. This takes out the guesswork, and allows you to be sure your vote will be cast and counted. You can learn more about your state's options here.
Once you hit Election Day, lines aren't something you can circumvent. However, always remember that as long as you arrive at your polling place during its official operating hours, you are still eligible to vote even if the line extends beyond the closing time. If you suspect there will be a long wait, try to come prepared with things you may need during your wait.
Unable to Get Off Work or Find Childcare
There is no federal law requiring employers to give employees time off to vote, something that can present a major obstacle for people with long or unpredictable hours. Black and Hispanic people in particular were more likely to report that they were unable to get off work to vote. Childcare can also present a major hurdle, particularly when combined with long lines at the polling place.
The most important thing is to know your rights. Many states have some type of requirement for off time for voting, although the length and pay requirements can vary. You can go to WorkplaceFairness.org to find out what the laws are in your area. If your job does require off time to vote and it's denied by your employer, DeWitt suggested contacting your state's Secretary of State office to report them. Thirty states have some form of legal penalty for employers in this situation.
There are fewer official resources available for those without childcare, and DeWitt's suggestion was to try accessing voting by mail or early voting—which don't typically require the same kind of in-person time commitment—if childcare is a major obstacle.
Missed Registration Deadlines
Although laws in some states allow you to register to vote the same day you cast your ballot, others require registration far in advance. "This is a critical moment for all voters to check their voter registration status and confirm it is up to date with their current address before their state's voter registration deadline," DeWitt explained.
If you're unsure about when your state's voter registration deadlines are, you can sign up for alerts based on your ZIP code from RockTheVote. The organization's Election Center is also a great place to stay up to date on deadlines in your area. Remember, if you miss your voter registration deadline, you will not be able to participate in the election.
Can't Find or Access Polling Places
Polling places can change from election to election, so even if you've voted at the same location for many years, it's always important to make sure you're up to date on where you'll be casting your ballot. While many Americans take for granted that they'll be able to easily access their voting location, people without reliable access to transportation or those who have disabilities can face additional hurdles.
If you don't have access to transportation, there are resources available for you. RideShare2Vote and Lyft are two places to look for help getting to and from your polling place. Disabilities can present another challenge, whether it's physically accessing your polling place or being able to cast your ballot.
"In all federal elections and most local elections, every polling place must offer at least one type of accessible voting equipment," DeWitt noted. "This allows voters with disabilities to vote directly or assist them in marking a paper ballot. Depending on the type of system, voters with disabilities may use headphones or other assistive devices to help them vote independently and secretly. It is best to plan early and call your local elections clerk to ensure your polling station is equipped with accessible machines or to identify another option."
Member agencies of the National Disability Rights Network can help you with access issues you may encounter in trying to vote.
Finally, it's important to remember that if you feel your right to vote is being violated, you can call (866) OUR-VOTE. The hotline will have lawyers available to answer election and voting-related questions and troubleshoot problems you may encounter.