Why Not?! An Unscientific Study of Voter (Dis)engagement

July 11, 2013, Upstate New York

It’s hot. Very hot. After a four-hour drive, three hours of sleep, and a grueling 13-hour shift, the first day of the festival is over, and I’m exhausted. Taking a minute to kick back, I hobble out behind the tent and grab a seat near our makeshift picnic table as my fellow Festival Coordinator Phil makes one last count.

“17,” he says with a sigh.
“17 what?”
“17 registrations.”
“You’re kidding—”

We sat in silence for a moment. What was wrong? Why weren’t our numbers living up to expectations? Sure the crowd was a bit younger than Bonnaroo, but these EDM kids still care about politics… right?

Saturday morning came and went without much of a change. Frustration was setting in and blasting a little OAR was all we could do to keep positive. After lunch, I got a second wind. Armed with a clipboard, three pens and a half-bag of Wal Mart Trail Mix, I headed into the fray.

As the midday sun burned back the haze, a gaggle of neon-clad kids passed by. Making eye contact with a girl up front, I began to recite the all too familiar phrase.

“Excuse me, are you guys registered to vote?”
“No thanks,” replied a flat-brim-hatted-broskie at the back of the pack.

Wait a minute, I thought. No thanks? NO THANKS?!? I’m doing YOU a favor, dude! It’s YOUR constitutional right were trying to exercise here, not mine – whatever, let’s just get the next one.

“How about you sir, are you registered to vote?”
“Would you like to be?”
“Dahhh, not today boss.”

For real? You’d think I was trying to sell vegan burritos or noise-cancelling headphones to these kids, not protect their civil liberties from the specter of adolescent apathy. I had to figure out what was turning them off. Maybe my tee shirt was too tight? Or my sunglasses were crooked? I had showered on Tuesday, so that couldn’t be it…Okay, time for a new approach. I pulled out a sheet of paper and divided it into a grid that looked something like this:

Pat Blog

Armed with statistics, I prepared to engage the next potential victim—errr, voter:

“Are you registered to vote?”
“No thank you.”
“Would you like to register?”
“NO. Thank you.”
“Why not?”
“Well, to be honest, I don’t think my vote really matters all that much. Plus, I’m tired and hungry and my feet hurt and I’d like to get in a good nap before the first set.”
“Right on –could you check the box that best explains why you chose not to vote?”
“Sure man… hey you know what? Thanks for doing this. I’m not gonna register but, ahh, yeah.”

The music played on, and I kept asking questions. Of roughly 200 people I talked to that day, less than ten took the time to register to vote with me. Here’s the (un)official breakdown:

Would you like to register to vote?

  • No, I don’t believe my vote matters / don’t care for politics: 31%
  • No, I’d rather just enjoy the festival: 15%
  • No, I’m trying to stay “off-the-grid”: 7%
  • No, I’m legally unable to register: 1%
  • Yes, please sign me up: 4%
  • Already registered: 42%

I took this data the back to the van and thought about it. More than half of the people I talked to simply didn’t want to register. And nearly a third refused specifically because they felt like their vote wouldn’t matter. I couldn’t wrap my head around that fact. You’re not losing anything by filling out the form—and you don’t have to go to the polls, so why not register to vote?

The whole ride home I kept obsessing. Even now, six months later, I’m not really sure what the answer is. Maybe it’s a consequence of the times? Maybe we’re jaded by the constant media drivel? Maybe we’re overcome by the futility of it all? Maybe it’s just too hard to care anymore?

Whatever the reason, something has to change. And I think that will be one of HeadCount’s biggest challenges in the years to come. We can stand at the gates of festivals all we want, waving signs and chanting “REGISTER TO VOTE!” until the candy-kids come home – but until people start to feel like their vote matters, we’ll be fighting an uphill battle.