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Encouraging Voter Registration : Deep Dive into 2016 Census Data

At Trust Insights, one of our core values is, “We are cooperative and aware.” When we consider what invites change in government, the single greatest factor is voter participation. Regardless of political or ideological affiliation, encouraging more citizens to become aware of and actively participate/cooperate in the political process is a worthy aim. Why don’t more people register to vote and show up at the voting polls?

Fortunately, someone else already collects this data. After every 2 and 4 year election (midterm and Presidential), the United States Census Bureau collects what’s known as the Voter Supplement to the Current Population Survey. The Census Bureau asks thousands of citizens why they did or did not participate in the voting process, and publishes that data for the public good.

The challenge with Census Bureau data (and government data in general) is that it’s unwieldy to manage and analyze. Even when processed and refined by credible third parties, it’s still a pain. However, the insights within the data are too valuable to pass up, so let’s dive into what we found.

The Big Picture

Why don’t people register to vote? More than 13 million Americans said they weren’t interested in politics and another 1.58 million said their vote wouldn’t make a difference. In the chart below, we’ve color-coded the reasons that are correctable, meaning that with time, effort, and education, citizens could potentially be brought back into the voting process:

If you can’t see the above clearly, visit the workbook on Tableau Public.

However, variations exist at the state level. Using the state selector in the top right corner of the chart below, choose your state (or any state of your liking) to see how preferences and opinions change:

For example, in California, difficulty with English is a much more substantial variable. Anyone working to encourage eligible citizens to vote should be prepared to assist with language translation.

Click here for the full view and to try the state chooser full-screen.

Age and Gender Matter

Who isn’t registered to vote? In looking at age and gender brackets, we see that a substantial number of people in the younger brackets don’t participate:

Read each bracket as the starting number less the next bracket number; 18 is citizens ages 18-23 years old. 24 is citizens 24-29 years old.

In particular, look at the second column, first row: the number of citizens 18-23 who did not meet registration deadlines. This is a group of more than one million people, female and male, who became ineligible to vote simply for bureaucratic reasons. Reaching out to these citizens and helping them register to vote should be a key part of any political organization’s mandate.

Can’t see clearly? View the full page version here.

The Office

Not the TV show; when looking at employment status, the number of people who don’t register to vote because of employment is substantial – almost 8 million people.

View the above table in the full page version here.

Fortunately, online voter registration is becoming easier; encourage your co-workers to register to vote online!

Registration Methods

When people do register to vote, how do they do it? When we look at this table, the Department of Motor Vehicles is one of the largest sources; registration by mail and by local government office are secondary methods, with online a distant fourth in many places.

See the full table on the full-page version.

If our goal is more citizen participation, then methods like registration by mail and online should be priorities. Why? No one really enjoys going to the Department of Motor Vehicles. It’s not a place we associate with happy memories or fun times for the most part. By focusing on the convenience and ease of mailing it in or registering online, we will be able to elevate citizen eligibility to vote.

What It All Means

Encouraging citizens to register to vote is an essential civic duty of everyone who wants an active role in government. Every eligible citizen has the potential to influence how government works; the more people who participate, the better. We encourage you to share this data, but more importantly, take action with it. Use it to reach out to people in your community and drive voter registration.

We recommend the non-partisan as a great resource to share.

As President Lincoln said: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Only when every eligible citizen participates can we achieve this ideal.


We used the 2016 Census Voter Supplement, cleaned and prepared by the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) project, part of the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota. We downloaded 37 variables in the 2016 voter supplement and merged by metro and state to obtain demographics for the voter samples. The final weighting variable we chose was the WTFINL, the Basic Final Weight after accounting for variances in population data.

Academic citation: Sarah Flood, Miriam King, Steven Ruggles, and J. Robert Warren. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, Current Population Survey: Version 5.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 2017.

Christopher S. Penn

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