Articles and Analysis


Why Women (Are Assumed to) "Fail to Vote"

Topics: 2008 , The 2008 Race

[Today's Guest Pollster's column comes from Margie Omero, President of Momentum Analysis, a Democratic polling firm based in Washington, DC.]

Women's turnout may prove crucial to victory in the upcoming Democratic primaries and caucuses. All the leading campaigns have strong female surrogates, be it Oprah, Michelle Obama or Elizabeth Edwards, or Hillary Clinton's mother, daughter, and of course, there's Hillary herself. Every candidate has a "women for __" committee, and Clinton even has a "Moms for Hillary" group. It makes sense for the campaigns to focus on the issues of interest to women voters. But do women voters require woman-specific tactics to encourage them to actually vote? EMILY's List, the pro-choice women's organization that is the largest PAC in the country, is encouraging women to caucus for Clinton through "You Go Girl," and while aimed at women specifically, it relies on the basics of GOTV: encouraging people to bring someone with them, and explaining the perhaps unfamiliar process of caucusing in Iowa. EMILY's List seems to know something the press has not yet figured out: there are not obstacles to voting that are unique to women.

In previous posts, I used Census data to establish that women are in fact voting more frequently than men, across age and education lines, and also among non-married adults, despite the "Single Anxious Female" moniker. Women have been voting at a higher rate than men in every presidential election since 1980, and in every midterm election since 1986.

But for years, there has been a lopsided amount of coverage about why women, in particular, aren't voting. Some stories cite studies of women only, but make conclusions about women-specific motivations for voting. Some use no data at all. Without comparing both genders' voting behavior, these conclusions are poorly drawn, and reflect biases of their own. Below are three common myths about women's turnout, followed by the facts that bust them.

Myth #1: Women find voting confusing

This story asked why "millions of women still fail to cast ballots." Many women-specific reasons are tossed about-nursing home abuse of "frail women," difficulty changing one's name after marriage, and the worry of domestic violence victims to have their address publicly available. While these are all unfortunate obstacles, they surely can't account for the 36% of adults who did not vote in the last presidential election. And what about that bothersome detail-that women are actually voting at a higher rate than men?

This often-cited finding from a 2006 study of unmarried adults concluded that "Many women on their own find elections complicated." Yet the toplines showed men and women similarly unconfused about the registration and voting process.

Even as far back as 1997, Knight-Ridder ran a story called "Many women don't vote because they lack the time, the information, and the belief elections are relevant to them" (link not available). That story concluded "many women have trouble with even the most basic steps in political participation," citing a poll conducted by pollsters Linda DiVall (R) and Celinda Lake (D). The poll, however, just surveyed women, making it impossible to know whether it is women alone who have trouble with these "basic steps," or non-voters as a whole.

Myth #2: Women find politics confusing

Others claim it is politics that confuses women, not just the voting process, and this confusion leads women to sit out elections. In 2004, an organization called Women Against Bush garnered national press through a "cocktail campaign" and yoga parties to organize the non-voting single woman, who allegedly believe "they have to be an expert to offer an opinion-something that has never stopped men"

Even studies that do show some women to find politics confusing still don't confirm this translates into a difference in turnout. The same 2006 study of unmarried adults noted above showed unmarried women more likely than unmarried men to agree that "Sometimes politics and elections seem so complicated I cannot really understand what's going on" (70% of unmarried women; 59% of unmarried men). However, the women in this survey were also far more likely to report having voted in 2004 (82% women, 76% men), in 2002 (66% women, 59% men), and said they were certain to vote in 2006 (53% women, 45% men).

Myth #3: Politics is a turn-off for women

Another assumption made about women and politics is that they find it too distasteful to participate, or feel so alienated from it that they simply can't relate. In 2004, the daughters of both the Republican and Democratic candidates for President and Vice President came together for a discussion called "The Missing Vote" to lament young women's lack of participation (never mind that they vote at a higher rate than younger men). One of the daughters hypothesized about the missing vote, "I think that women feel less secure in their economic status."

Another story pointed to a few anecdotal quotes in this Los Angeles Times story to show that "scores" (doesn't a score = twenty?) of women "are so turned off by politics that they are failing to vote." And this study concluded that unmarried women to have "a deep-seated level of cynicism towards the government and political system."

Fact #1: There Are Few Gender Differences In Reasons For Not Registering Or Voting

Thankfully, the Census can help clear these myths up. It turns out that there are hardly any differences across gender in apathy or disinterest in voting. The table below shows reasons for not registering and for not voting (among those who are registered), broken out by gender.


For starters, there are not many large gender differences in any of the reasons for not registering or voting, aside from women being more likely to report illness or disability, and men more likely be too busy or out of town. But the most common reason for not registering, "not interested in the election or not involved in politics," is just as common among men (46.7%) as among women (46.5%). When it comes to political excuses (highlighted in yellow), such as lack of interest, and feeling one's vote would not make a difference, there are actually no sizable gender differences. The slight (1.4) difference between men and women reporting that they did not know how to register to vote surely does not justify over a decade of hand-wringing about women not knowing "the basic steps" of participation.

Fact #2: Women Are More Positive Than Men About Politics And Government

The research is also fairly consistent in showing women to feel less negative about their government than men. Pew has shown women just as likely as men to show interest in following local politics. And in 1999, Pew also showed women more likely than men to say "voting gives me a say in how my government is run," and "most elected officials care what I think."

Even some of the same studies that perpetuate these myths about women's (particularly unmarried women's) turnout also confirm Fact #2. This study showed unmarried women more likely than their male counterparts to be proud to be an American, and slightly more optimistic about whether the government represents them. Similarly, this study showed unmarried men somewhat more likely to say their vote didn't matter.

So before we declare women unable or uninterested in voting, we should look at the facts. It's not that there aren't women who find voting or politics confusing or off-putting; but the evidence that women feel this way more than men is inconsistent, at best. It's unclear to me why it helps women to suggest they are uniquely challenged by voting. Crying wolf cycle after cycle has made the press very quick to write the "women don't like politics" story, as pointed out here. Candidates (at least on the Democratic side) are putting a lot of thought into how to talk to women voters. Pollsters, pundits, and journalists should put as much thought into talking about women voters.



Have I been particularly lucky in that I havent come across all those stories about confused women who dont know how to vote? I'm a pretty obsessive follower of election news, and yet the only time I've seen any particular focus on Women Who Dont Vote (Much) was in the context of the "Single Anxious Female" narrative that the author mentions.

On that count, I think the author makes a mistake. She appears to blame the focus in that narrative on unmarried women, specifically, failing to vote, on some prior bias that predisposes the journalists to think of women as somehow particularly inept, uninformed or confused. But the reason the conceptual Single Anxious Female made it to the headlines was not because single women were deemed to be particularly less reliable to vote than their male counterparts. She made the headlines because unlike her male counterpart, she could decide the outcome of the elections.

The gender gap in voting means women tend to vote more often Democratic than men. Unmarried people, meanwhile, vote more often Democratic than married people. Unmarried women, therefore, are one of the most Democratic demographics around. But their turnout tends to flag; so their demographic represents a potentially 'undercapitalised' resource for any Democratic candidate. If turnout among unmarried women surges, that could turn a bunch of races to the Democrats!

Now compare unmarried men. Unmarried people lean Democratic. But men lean Republican. So with unmarried men, the net result is likely a wash. Sure their turnout is relatively low too - even lower than that of unmarried women, as the author points out. But since they dont lean anywhere as strongly either way in political preferences, an increased turnout on their part changes little about the results.

In terms of horserace coverage about Who Is Likely To Win This Year, an increased turnout of unmarried women is potentially crucial to the outcome. An increased turnout among unmarried men as a general group, on the other hand, is pretty much irrelevant except in general terms of civic virtue etc. Where's the story in that?


N Miller:

Another fantastic post, Margie - so interesting, and your clear-eyed analysis is priceless. I hope you keep doing this...


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