Here’s a fact: Americans aren’t that enthusiastic about voting in midterm elections. And the numbers prove it. When compared to presidential elections—which can feel more high-profile and dramatic—midterm election turnout is pretty, well, lousy.
Almost 74 million women and 64 million men voted in the 2016 presidential election, according to data crunched by the Center for American Women and Politics. That came out to about 63 percent of eligible female voters, versus just over 59 percent of males. In comparison, only 43 percent of eligible women and barely 41 percent of men reported voting in the 2014 midterms, per CAWP. It was the worst turnout in decades—remarkably weak even in a country whose off-year voting is typically low.
But will this year’s midterms be different? Everyone seems to be pulling out all the stops to get voters to the polls on Nov. 6. And women are at the center of attention this election season—not just because they clinched a historic number of nominations for the House, Senate, and governor. As Page Gardner of the non-profit Voter Participation Center tells Glamour, “If Democrats win the House, women will bring them there,” and specifically, “unmarried women will have a big, big, big, piece of that story.” (Married women, as NPR has noted, have been shown to vote Republican more than singles.)
Women are also the group to watch because they have voted more than men for decades. And there are certain groups of women who are traditionally reliable voters. Older women vote more than younger, for example. Black women have notably shown their clout at the polls: Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez personally thanked them for their role in 2017 wins in special elections in Alabama and Virginia.
But what makes would-be voters (yes, even women) stay away from the polls? The political climate and the players seem to matter: A Pew analysis of the 2016 election found that overall, 25 percent of people who didn’t vote said they didn’t like the candidates or issues. Another 15 percent lacked interest or felt their vote wouldn’t matter. Nearly as many, 14 percent, said they were too busy with work or school to cast a ballot. (One apparent issue: A 2016 study found younger voters three to four times likelier to have to wait in line to vote than Baby Boomers; the likelihood was higher for African-Americans and Latinos.)
“The sad reality is, in midterm elections, you typically see a depressed turnout — especially among groups that are sort of stretched and less likely to turn out anyway.”
As that lousy turnout in 2014 indicates, “The sad reality is, in midterm elections, you typically see a depressed turnout — especially among groups that are sort of stretched and less likely to turn out anyway,” says Marissa McBride, VPC’s executive director. Notably, McBride pointed out that whether single, separated, divorced, or widowed, “Unmarried women [are now] the majority of head of households. A lot of them work two or three jobs, so the idea they’re going to stand in line for two hours or miss work or are not going to be able to pick their kid up on time [in order] to vote — it’s just not a reality in their lives.”
So, for a lot of women, it’s not just a lack of enthusiasm or interest. Life can get in the way.
Christy McCormick, vice chairwoman of the federal Election Assistance Commission, told Glamour in an interview earlier this year how single women can see voting as critical in theory, but burdensome in practice: “When you are the single person [that’s] responsible for everything and you don’t have back-up, as married people do, it’s just another thing to add to the list… which is a shame, because it really is important for all of us to have a voice in our government.”
But, the tide may turn this election cycle. There’s titanic effort going into overcoming some of those obstacles that make it hard to vote—especially in low-profile races that don’t garner as much attention as salacious presidential elections—from coast-to-coast. Here are a few examples of that effort (and how you can get involved):
March on the Polls with…a Mariachi band: A joint project of progressive groups March On and Swing Left seeks to capitalize on the political passions that sparked the Women’s March—and got hotter during the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “Women in this country have been saying ‘no’ in the streets—now we are saying it with our ballot,” March On Executive Director Vanessa Wruble said in a statement to Glamour. In Texas, Mariachi bands are leading people to early voting sites. In South Carolina, it’s marches to post offices to mail absentee ballots. A Facebook call to action in Trump’s hometown, New York, says Election Day plans can go from “serving coffee and donuts to creating a mini-parade… Have a marching band? Stilt walkers? It’s all up to you.”
Providing childcare: Childcare can be an issue for women voters, and groups from the YMCA to Care In Action, the political arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, are offering to keep an eye on the kids so moms can get to the polls.
Getting a ride to the polls: Uber is collaborating with the nonprofit groups #VoteTogether and Democracy Works to offer free rides to voters with limited access to transportation, as well as adding a “Get to the Polls” locator feature for app users.
Pushing for paid time off: Groups like ElectionDay.org are campaigning to convince businesses to offer their U.S. employees paid time off to vote. Already on board: Patagonia, Pinterest, Giphy, Dropbox, and Levi’s, to name a few. When it comes to giving workers excused absences, companies already “have to do it when people get jury duty, and they figure it out, so they can figure it out for one day [and] give people the opportunity to vote without having to be overly stressed about getting the kids to school and being late and missing an hour,” Levi’s Chief Marketing Officer Jey Sey, a mom of four, told Glamour.
Bring on the Merch: In another example of voting encouragement meeting entrepreneurship, Sara Berliner’s “Vote Like a Mother” gear caters to “time-strapped parents looking for a way to amplify their voice and make change,” with profits directed to organizations such as MomsRising, Moms Demand Action, and EMILY’s List. Shirts have been spotted on politically engaged celebrities such as Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin.”
But even with these efforts voting rights advocates are deeply worried that busy schedules may not be all that keeps Americans from the polls. And that’s something to be on the lookout for:
Voter suppression: In Georgia, where Democrat Stacey Abrams is battling Republican Brian Kemp to become the nation’s first black governor, the ACLU and other groups have gone to court with claims of discrimination against minority voters who sent in absentee ballots by mail. The lawsuits got filed after election administrators—including Kemp, who also oversees voting as Georgia’s secretary of state—rejected hundreds of ballots because they weren’t an “exact match” for information on the voter rolls, such as birthdate or signature.
Political bullying: And then, there’s messaging from the nation’s leaders. With the 2018 midterms being a major referendum on President Donald Trump’s policies and performance, he’s using his favorite bully pulpit, Twitter, to send an ominous message: “All levels of government and Law Enforcement are watching carefully for VOTER FRAUD, including during EARLY VOTING. Cheat at your own peril,” he warned. “Violators will be subject to maximum penalties, both civil and criminal!” It’s not out of character—Trump has a solid history of making evidence-free claims about voting: After blithely insisting he only lost the 2016 popular vote to Hillary Clinton because of millions of improperly cast ballots, he set up a special commission on “election integrity.” The panel sparked a national backlash after soliciting reams of personal voter data. Trump shut it down in under a year.
Voter ID laws: The president is also a fan of making voters show photo identification at the polls, which supporters say helps stop unqualified people from abusing the system and critics say have a disproportionate chilling effect on minorities, the elderly, and the poor. Trump once went so far as to suggest showing I.D. to vote is no big deal because it’s impossible to even buy groceries without one. (Fact check: Mostly not true, aside from certain items like smokes and booze.)
Whether it’s excitement over particular candidates, a desire to pass judgment on Trump, or successful appeals to get out the vote, there are definite signs of enthusiasm, if the 2018 primary season is any indication. A Pew analysis released early this month found about 37 million registered voters cast ballots in this year’s House primaries—a big jump from the 23.7 million who did so in 2014. The surge in turnout was much bigger among Democrats than Republicans in House races. More people also voted in Senate and governor primaries, but the party gap wasn’t as big.
Millions of people are also not waiting until Nov. 6 to have their say. According to the United States Election Project, as of October 21, more than 4.9 million Americans had voted early. Voting, whether by mail or in person, has been heavy in Georgia, where the historic Abrams-Kemp contest has generated major excitement; and Arizona, where voters are deciding if GOP Rep. Martha McSally or Democratic Rep. Krysten Sinema should be the first woman to represent them in the Senate.
Michael McDonald, the University of Florida political science professor tracking turnout on the Elections Project site, says early voting is running at a record pace, but advises against jumping to conclusions. Surveying the landscape in mid-October, he offered two potential scenarios: Early voting rates could keep climbing, “leading to a modern midterm turnout record,” or maybe “we’re just seeing a rush by the politically engaged” and turnout will end up more in line with a typical year.
Whatever the case, you should know your rights when you hit the ballot. Because while it matters who decides to rally around Nov. 6, actually casting a vote is the real measure.
You can find more information on voting laws and how to protect your vote here.
Celeste Katz is senior political reporter for Glamour. Send news tips, questions, and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.In a pivotal election year, Glamour is keeping track of the historic number of women running (and voting) in the midterm elections. For more on our latest midterm coverage, visit www.glamour.com/midterms.