Why Some People Vote and Others Don’t

Published Sep 20, 2022

Political scientist Dr. Andrea Benjamin discusses her research on local elections and what motivates Black and Latino voters.

In this episode

Colleen and Andrea discuss:

  • voter behavior and what motivates people to vote
  • the role of endorsements on Black and Latino voters
  • how we can help to get out the vote
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:26)
Intro (0:26-2:26)
Interview part 1 (2:26-15:45)
Break (15:45-16:32)
Interview part 2 (16:32-23:53)
Throw (23:53-23:59 )
Segment (23:59-28:12 )
Outro (28:12-29:00)


Science in Action segment: Cana Tagawa and Matt Beyer
Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth and Cana Tagawa
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Related content
Full transcript

Colleen: Earlier this month, I voted in the Massachusetts primary elections, which determine who’s running in the general election later this fall… for governor, secretary of state, state auditor… and a bunch of local positions that sound boring, but actually hold quite a bit of power. It’s worth paying attention to whom we’re giving this power to!

But… it’s not as easy to get folks excited about who their registrar of deeds or their state representative might be. Unless you’re over 50.

Generally, people in my demographic tend to vote most often in municipal and statewide elections like this… which is a bummer, because I believe all of us deserve to have our preferences reflected. Of course, it’s not entirely voters’ faults. As a nation, we could do a lot more to make it easier for people to vote. But even without considering mass disenfranchisement, racist policies, and everyday barriers to voting like jobs and childcare—which are huge—there’s still a lot of eligible voters who just… don’t.

On National Voter Registration Day, which happens to be today… I’m wondering why more people who aren’t in my demographic aren’t as excited or invested in local elections, and even the big ones… and what it means for our democracy more broadly if eligible voters don’t, or can’t, turn out.

I was lucky to be joined in my musings by Dr. Andrea Benjamin, Associate Professor of African & African-American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Andrea wrote a book titled Racial Coalition Building in Local Elections, which explores the potential for Black and Latinx coalitions of voters, and she’s working on another project about local politics. We discuss her research on voting, how to preserve our right to vote, and how there can be a direct link between the people representing you, and the condition of your sidewalks.

Colleen: Andrea, welcome to the podcast.

Andrea: Thank you for having me.

Colleen: So, , we're airing this podcast on National Voter Registration Day. The midterms are right around the corner, then the lead-up to the presidential election. You know, for those of us in the habit of voting in all the elections locally and nationally, it's hard to understand why so many people don't vote. What can you tell us about voting behavior?

Andrea: I agree that it is sometimes really frustrating when you're talking to someone and they tell you voting doesn't matter. I strongly disagree. And even though I can understand the way people live their lives voting might not seem like it's really important, but for someone who studies local politics, I'm here to tell you that it is really important. So, just as a quick aside, I worked at the University of Missouri for a very short time, and so I lived in Columbia. And earlier this year, they had an election for city council and it came out tied.

They had to then have a like a runoff because even if just one more person had showed up that day to just cast a ballot in that election, it would've saved the taxpayers' money, the voters' money, those types of things. So, I wanna remind people that your vote does matter, but I think people don't vote because they don't know that it's important.

And maybe, again, for us, the audience here on this podcast, we'll say, "Oh, my goodness, it does matter." But I think for people's day-to-day lives, sometimes it is hard to really connect that action of going into a polling station and checking a box and how that translates into outcomes. But I think, again, particularly at the local level, well, if we don't elect good city council members, the projects that our cities get when we ask for things from our city, those types of things might not happen the way that we want them to.

But I think in the broader sense, we do pay more attention to national elections because we spend a lot more money on those advertisements and people are paying more attention, but even there, the turnout isn't that high. And I think it's, again, because people are not able to make that connection between how that action really affects them because for most people, their day-to-day lives, it doesn't matter who's sitting in office.

Colleen: Right. And I think with the national elections, the advertising—it’s in your face all the time, and you don't get that with local politics so much.

Andrea: With local politics, you're lucky if your city is organized enough or there are organizations on the ground that are organized enough to host a voter forum or some sort of candidate debate. You might see a few lawn signs, you might receive mail, but it's not gonna be the inundated every time you turn on the TV, here's an ad from so-and-so running for city council or so-and-so running even for county commission, let's say, or sheriff. Those ads just are not as prevalent.

Colleen: So, you know, you mentioned that people are busy. It's not top of mind. What motivates people to vote first off?

Andrea: You know, that's such a big question. But, the research says, when things are important to you, when people are able to connect your day-to-day life with the importance of voting, so when you talk to candidates, they'll say, oh, my goodness, elections are won on the doors. That I door-knocked, that I heard from the community. And so I would say, like anything in life, you might say, oh, I didn't do that because no one asked me, I kind of think of voting as one of those things too, right?

That I didn't do that because no one came to me. No one asked me if it was important to me. No one listened to my concerns. And so I think people vote because they realize that there's something important to them at stake. Although I should say some people vote just because they think it's important to vote.

But for most people, I think, people choose to engage in our electoral system when they are able to connect why that particular office or connect with a person, a candidate, thinking about how that's going to impact them.

Colleen: What are the differences that you see in what motivates people from different ethnicities?

Andrea: Yeah. one thing that has been...I mean, a couple of things, right? So, people who study this at, let's say, a congressional level, here I'm thinking about Bernard Fraga. At the congressional level, when a candidate of color runs that that somehow increases vote. It can increase voter turnout, but I think there are sort of two things happening. One is the types of districts that would generate that type of candidate, they're probably already sort of diverse.

But the other piece is whether or not within those districts or those communities, when you have a candidate from your community run, what get out the vote or voter registration drives are they doing in those communities that may or may not take place when it's not a co-ethnic candidate or, you know, a member of your in-group?

So, I think, obviously, having a candidate from your shared racial or ethnic background can increase your voter turnout, but again, that's likely due to people being excited, your neighbors might be excited about the candidate and maybe they ask you to vote. But it is true even at the presidential level, we think about even African Americans in 2012, they had increased their voter turnout relative to 2008 with Obama being on the ballot. And so I do think there is a swell when you have someone from your shared racial ethnic background running for office.

But I think the reason for that, and again, I try to be really clear here. I don't think it's that people are ignorant. Clearly, even for African Americans, there are Black candidates that don't receive that type of support. So, here I'm thinking of, in the current context, looking at a Herschel Walker against Raphael Warnock, obviously that's two Black candidates. But there's nothing unique to me about Herschel Walker that would make a ton of Black voters in Georgia decide, oh, my goodness, I wanna support this person, likely because it's not clear that they have a shared issue preference.

So, I don't wanna make it seem like you can just prop up any Black or brown candidate and people are just ignorantly going to support them. I think there has to be shared issues. But what I do think matters is that people think those people, again, when we have a shared interest are going to represent them well. Does that mean that everything that that community wants is going to be on the agenda? No, because it's still a governing body that has rules about the way decisions are made.

And so whether that's a city council, if you have seven members on your city council, electing one Black person is not going to generate a bunch of policies that we would think benefit Black people because there's only one of them. So, you still have to have shared like-minded people to move those things forward. But again, that idea that that person is going to represent that community well, that is a built-in idea around that. But still, again, with shared issues.

Colleen: Right. So, you've researched and written about coalition building with the focus on Black and Latino voters. I wanna hear everything about it. How you conducted the research, what you discovered, but let's start with the findings. So, what are the key elements in building a coalition?

Andrea: That's a great question. I think I wanna be clear here. And for those that have read the book or read the book, I'm really thinking about a very particular type of coalition. And here it's sort of an elite coalition. And we can think about a more ground-up grassroots coalition, where the people have come together. Maybe they've even selected the candidate to run those types of things.

I'm interested in how, if we've decided on the candidate, how does that candidate outreach to particular voters? And so I will say, I will take a liberty here, which is, the book really comes from my dissertation. And I like to tell this story, especially to students and grad students in particular because I think with research, you sort of set out thinking, "Oh, my goodness, I'm going to go find this thing." And so if you read the book, there are these case studies. So, I consider four major cities, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Houston. And that's partially because I was interested in Black and Latino voters in those local contexts. Initially, I went to those cities expecting to see examples where candidates, whether they were Black, Latinx, Latino, or white saying, I'm trying to build this Black-Latino coalition.

And so, again, this is many, many years ago. This is before we had all these really cool things to like read text. So, I'm reading by hand hundreds of articles from those four cities, maybe five at the time, just trying to figure out, did candidate A ever say, hi, I'm candidate A and I want you to support me? I've made a Black-Latino coalition. Please vote for me. So, I read all these articles. And Black-Latino coalition is only mentioned, let's say, under five times. That's real.

So, I'm like, "Oh my goodness, this thing I thought I would see." this is 2007, 2008, I'm starting this work. This is before Obama's elected. And, Los Angeles had a Latino candidate on the ballot, Villaraigosa, New York had a Latino candidate on the ballot, Ferrer, Houston had Black and Latino candidates running against each other. So, it wasn't like that strange that I would think if I'm looking at my demographics here, I'm looking at who lives in this city, if I wanna win, if I'm a Latino candidate, let me get Black voters on board with me, let's run this coalition.

I'm thinking I'm gonna find this. So, when I don't find this, it is devastating for me as a researcher. I'm like, "Oh my goodness, this idea that I had, it's not gonna move forward." But because I actually read all the articles by hand instead of using a machine to read them, I did notice one thing. And that was in each election, there was a group of community members, whether that was other elected officials or organizations, and they were offering endorsements for out-group candidates.

What do I mean by that? I mean, if it was a Black candidate running, we might find white and Latinx organizations, community members, candidates, elected officials saying, "I'm going to endorse this Black candidate." So, even in 2001, a particular set of Black voters might have endorsed Villaraigosa or Black leaders, elites might have endorsed Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, but by 2005, they didn't or vice versa, right?

And so that let me know, hey, why are people offering these endorsements, and do voters follow them? And so, of course, it's a very large content analysis. It was very rudimentary. But what I did notice is that when a majority of Black endorsers endorsed a particular candidate, Black voters did support that candidate. And then I said, well, that's interesting, but that's not causal. They could have just liked that candidate.

Maybe even the endorsers endorsed the candidate when they already saw that they were doing well with Black voters, let's say, or vice versa. Latinx leaders endorsed this particular candidate when they saw that person was already doing well with Latinx voters. So, I then set up a huge experiment.

The other thing that I noticed, again, from reading these articles was that there were times when candidates really talked about race and times where they didn't. So I wondered, why are we talking about race or ethnicity and certain things and what does it mean? And so when I set up my experiment, I really thought about those three factors. So, when is there an endorsement present? What's the race of the candidate? And then are we talking about racial or ethnic issues? And so then I ran the experiment. And again, this is people who are young will be like, "Oh, my gosh, Andrea, you did an experiment in person on paper." Yes. We used to do it that way. We didn't have Qualtrics. We didn't have these fancy companies that would do it for you and you would submit all your files and then hours later, your data would be there. It's not like that. I did it by myself with a lot of help from a lot of people.

But when I went to go analyze the data, what I found was that for African Americans, the presence of a Black endorsement really moved them towards the endorsed candidate. And it only got stronger, that result only got stronger when they were thinking about race or ethnicity. For Latinx community members, it just didn't move that way. Overall, they liked the candidate that received the endorsement or not. Maybe it was the issue. They just liked that candidate better.

So, really with the dissertation coming out and then the first part of the book was, well, listen, it seems like African Americans, do perform as a voting block, right? And so we might not have been that surprised. But with the Latinx community, it was surprising because then the question was, well, what might motivate them?

Clearly, we saw in other cities that when a Latinx candidate ran, Latinx voters supported them. So that seemed to be okay. And people had done research on that, I'm thinking about Barreto. But what happens when they don't have an in-group candidate? Who are they going to pick? And so that led to a couple of things. One is I was able to collect some data in Los Angeles in 2013 with an exit poll and have people tell me if they were aware of these endorsements for these two candidates, one of whom was Latinx.

And even there, Latinx community members...it didn't really matter. I think only the Latinx newspaper really mattered. But, the person that they picked as their most important endorser didn't matter. But for African Americans, it did, even in the real world. So, again, that was some confirmation that I was on the right track. Then in the book, I was able to collect data in the cool new ways of the internet. And I was able to really ask them not just about endorsements, but about coalitions.

And there, both Black and Latinx respondents were much more likely to support those candidates that had formed Black and Latinx, Latinos in the book, but coalitions. And so, again, I do appreciate the liberty, to let me really go on with that, but what I hope people understand is that research is so iterative, right? And so if I had said, "Oh, I'm only gonna study Black and Latino coalitions," that's great. I wouldn't have found what I was looking for. That wasn't the language that candidates were using. So then it wasn't the language that voters were hearing in those communities. And so I always try to share that story because I think it's important to know that you learn a lot through research and, have to be able to adapt.

Colleen: How would you like to see your research being used?

Andrea: I think that's such a good question. And I think we as academics, I think, forget that part of the question. And I think the academic gut reaction is, well, I hope people use it and build better experiments than me, right, or explore it in a different context, whether that's a different policy area or with different groups. So, of course, you want that. That is what we think we're doing as academics, creating scientific knowledge, generating knowledge that someone else then builds upon, even if they find out that, well, the way you did it wasn't quite right, or when I tweak this, it changed this. I think those things are important.

But I think for my work, in particular, there has been a fear that the wrong people will use it the wrong way, right? And so we can think about, especially in the time that we live in right now, where there's a lot of disinformation. So, if you read my book, what I'm basically saying is, hey, in a low information setting like a local election where partisanship is not there, here are the conditions under which I think African Americans really tune into endorsements and that might help them pick the candidate that they think will represent them well. Here are the conditions when we might expect Latinx voters to do it. It's a little bit different and we have to be pretty specific there, but here's when I think that matters.

Can I think of, you know, dark money or people with bad intentions coming in and thinking, I'm gonna tell Black people that other Black people endorse this candidate that is not going to do anything for them? Sure. That can happen.

What I do hope my work shows is that endorsements can matter, but I think there has to be a connection for voters. And so what I mean by that is, one, I don't think endorsements matter in every election. I think there are some electoral context where that just doesn't matter. And I should say co-ethnic endorsements might not matter.

And what do I mean by that? I mean, if the major issue in this year's city council is sidewalks and roads, who cares what Black people think about sidewalks and roads? There's nothing racially salient about that. You might look to your neighbor who happens to be Black and ask them, "Hey, what do you think about these roads?" Or you might look to an organization here though, maybe it's an environmental organization, maybe the environment matters for sidewalks and roads. I don't know. So that's one thing.

But what I do hope is that community members realize that there are organizations that can help them lift. And by that, I mean, they can do the research to say, hey, on this issue, this candidate really does a better job. So, we're supporting that candidate for that reason. But I also think it has an added layer of accountability when we have connections to these organizations that are giving the endorsements.

That's because if we say I listen to organization A and they endorse candidate B, I voted for candidate B, if candidate B starts doing some things that are not in line with what I thought they were gonna be doing, I can always go back to organization A and say, "Hey, have you noticed that candidate B isn't really doing what they said they would? They said they were gonna vote on all the sidewalks." I’ve looked, they've been voting no on all the sidewalks. I thought we were getting new sidewalks." That there can be an added layer of accountability.

And I think that does matter to voters because going back to your initial question, people think that their vote doesn't matter because they don't see the change that they want, so this idea of efficacy. But when we have accountability, we can say, "Hey, we supported you. We elected you. You've had your four years. You didn't do what you wanted. It's time for us to pick someone else." And I think organizations can help voters work on that accountability mechanism.

Colleen: Because we're airing this on National Voter Registration Day, can you give me your top three to five things that you would like to share with our listeners about getting out the vote?

Andrea: Yes. So, Voter Registration Day is such an important day. It's just a nice reminder that we need to make sure that we are registered. So to me, I think voter registration day is a time for you to check your voter registration to make sure that it's current and accurate. I recently was...my polling place was closed. So I have a new place to go. This is a great day to just check to make sure I know where I vote, that things haven't changed. So, I know where my polling station is.

And again, making sure that your voter registration is current and accurate. Have you moved recently? Make sure that you are registered to vote. And then I think it's important on Voter Registration Day to think about the people that maybe have express concerns around issues at the state, local, national level, and make sure that they're registered to vote. You might even help them.

Do we need to go online to request a form? Can we do it completely online? Do we need to go to the secretary of state? How do we register? And then just like other places, think about maybe you could invite three friends, check on their registration, make sure they're registered to vote, and if you need to help them get registered to vote. I think that's a very simple thing that we can all do within our own communities just to help people.

Then when it comes to getting out the vote, as we move towards the next election that those voters have the opportunity to participate in, I think there's always that idea of, vote and bring 10 people with you, vote and bring 5 people with you.

But even given my research, the other piece I would say is check in with people who, not that you're an expert or you think you know everything, but just check in with your friends and those around you, hey, have you looked at the candidates that are running, or have you looked at this bond issue, or have you looked at this state question? Do you know how you're voting? And then maybe think about helpful, neutral resources that you can share with people so that they can get the best information and make the best decision for themselves.

Colleen: What are your top priorities for the midterms and beyond?

Andrea: I think my number one priority is protecting the right to vote. We have seen state legislatures roll back access to the ballot in ways that were not...I just could not conceive them even five years ago. Maybe that's ignorant on my part, but I just didn't see that happening. So, I think protecting the right to vote and whether that is the hours that polling stations are open, the amount of time that people spend being able to vote, the ability to be able to vote by mail, whether that is automatic in your state, whether that is a process that you have to request the ballot, get it notarized, send it back in. These are all things that we need to be protecting.

We live in a country where democracy is supposed to be important. And part of that is built on the idea that people express their preferences. We count those preferences and we translate those preferences into policy. When fewer people participate, I think we're really not at a healthy level of democracy. And I think that's troubling. So to me, that is my number one thing is how can we protect people's right to vote?

Related to that is making sure that people understand that the people tasked with counting our ballots, that they have integrity, that there is no fraud going on. And that when allegations of fraud come up, that we're able to investigate it efficiently and quickly and realize that that's probably not what's going on. And so I think those two things just really matter to me that we continue to protect the right to vote and that we understand that our elections are being held fairly.

Colleen: Well, Andrea, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast. This has been a great conversation. And I look forward to your forthcoming book.

Andrea: Thank you so much for having me. This was fun.

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