Why don’t more unmarried women vote?

An article in both Women’s eNews and AlterNet discusses the reasons why many women don’t vote. In actuality, more women vote than men. And that’s great news! The problem is that significantly lower numbers of unmarried women vote, compared to married women.

Unmarried women are the fastest growing major demographic group and represent the largest potential group of new voters, according to “The State of Unmarried America,” an annual report released on June 29 by Washington-based Women’s Voices Women Vote.
But many of their votes aren’t there to be counted. Of the 49.5 million single, separated, divorced or widowed women in the United States, 18 million are unregistered and 5 million are registered but don’t vote.
“What would make them most likely to participate is if they have more information from sources that they trust: nonbiased, nonpartisan information,” said Joe Goode, executive director of Women’s Voices Women Vote. “They don’t have the same social network or are not as politically engaged as married couples. The second major thing holding them back is cynicism towards politicians and politics.”
Goode says the women sitting out elections are hindered in general by a high degree of instability; 40 percent of young women move every three to four years and need to re-register.
Other women may be hindered more by everyday difficulties.
“Women are voting and women are voting in high numbers every year,” said Kassidy Johnson, a campus organizer for the Feminist Majority Foundation in Arlington, Va., which has a variety of programs to increase female voting. “I really believe the things that hold us back are normal, everyday things. You forget, you can’t find a babysitter or you don’t want to stand in line all day.”

Women’s Voices, Women’s Vote has a fact sheet (PDF) that more clearly shows the disparity. And while I don’t consider unmarried women a demographic that we can expect to vote a certain way, I do think that it’s important to make sure that they have a say in our political process.
The disparity in numbers raises several questions. Why do more married women vote? Is it because married women are more likely to have children, and therefore feel stronger ties to their community? Is it because more men are interested in politics and encourage their wives to vote? If this is the case, are husbands unfairly influencing the votes of their wives? Are there completely different factors? And what is the effect on our voting process going to be, now that numbers of unmarried women are increasing? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but they’re food for thought.
Aside from the economic and practical issues discussed in the article, I also wonder if there are more social reasons behind this trend. I’d like to supply a personal anecdote.


I have voted ever since I was legally able, which was 2002. During both the 2002 and 2004 elections, I had to vote by absentee ballot. The 2006 election was my first opportunity to vote in person. I was excited. I thought that there was something special about physically casting my vote on the day and the energy of watching democracy take place. The reality was both unpleasant and intimidating.
When I went into the building, I had to find out where to report. The polling station was broken up into several smaller groups, based on address. Everyone else seemed to know where to go. There weren’t any volunteers at the door providing directions. Eventually, I manged to find my street on a map, and waited in the line for ten minutes. Then, when I got to the front, I found out that this group didn’t include my side of the street. I asked where I was supposed to go, and was told in an annoyed voice that I had to look at all of the maps at all of the tables. I was back to square one. I wandered around to several several tables and had no luck before someone finally had the kindness to help me. I was supposed to be across the building from the first table I had reported to. After checking in, I told the representatives that I had never voted in person before, and wasn’t entirely sure how to work the switches inside of the booth. They looked at me like I was vaguely stupid before explaining.
The entire experience was frustrating, intimidating and demoralizing. I would like to think that it was an isolated incident, but I’m really not so sure. It was bad enough that I’m seriously considering volunteering to work at the polling station during the next election, in an attempt to help create a better atmosphere. After that experience, I can see why many other young women– or really, anyone not entirely familiar with the voting process– would be put off by the prospect. And I can certainly see why all of those voters who are registered but don’t vote would be hesitant to put themselves through the experience more than once.
So, what do you think? What are your experiences? How do you think that the voting process keeps younger and unmarried women out, and what can we do to correct it?

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35 Comments

  1. Posted August 8, 2007 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I am so glad that you posted this – I just wrote about it on my blog yesterday!
    Like you, I have been voting since I have been able to (since 2003) and I love going to the polls to vote. But it can be very daunting and frustrating. During the last Presidential election I stood in line for over 2 hours, winding my way through the university library.
    My opinion on why the voting process keeps women out is that there isn’t enough propaganda or activism to get women to vote. Sure, we have online groups and websites, but there aren’t too many younger women physically out there, knocking on doors and leafleting, trying to get their peer group to vote. That is, at least not where I am from. Also, the politicians haven’t always geared their campaigns towards targeting the unmarried woman demographic but they are starting to now because they have realized what a big group we really are. But it still isn’t enough. I think a big campaign needs to be created to inform and inspire our demographic group to vote.

  2. Jayble
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry that you had a rough experience! Maybe it is simply location? I live in a rural university community and the volunteers are always extremely friendly and helpful. There are always plenty of people there to tell you where to go and how to cast your vote (as in how to mark the ballot – not how to vote). I have found the smaller the town I am in the more friendly they are – mainly because they start to recognize voters through the years.
    I have even thought that that over explained a bit – there were times when I was like “I know! I have done this before – I am not stupid!” Although, my husband forgets how to mark the ballot every time so he finds it helpful. Before i got married when I voted, I would usually mark a party of it by making sure all of my friends went along – it was an outing and we made it a fun one. I remember people being as helpful when I was single as they are now.
    I really wonder what the breakdown in living area – rural? urban? somewhere in between? – is to the friendliness of those there to help as well as to the rates of voting among single women.

  3. florafloraflora
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Your experience sounds terrible! Aside from the usual smugness of people who think they’re smarter than you because they know their routines better than you do, I don’t understand why they don’t break the voters down by last name! That’s what they do in my precinct, and it works perfectly. I wonder whether you have more than one precinct voting at your polling place, or what. I just have to let you know that it’s not like that everywhere. In fact I’ve never seen that level of confusion anywhere, and I’ve voted at lots of different addresses in three different states.

  4. Posted August 8, 2007 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Well I’m glad to hear that other people have had much more positive experiences . . . interestingly enough, Jayble, I do live in a small town!

  5. Posted August 8, 2007 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Last time I voted the city actually sent me a card reminding me to do it, on which they listed the wrong polling place. So I went to the place listed, spent half an hour there trying to figure out why I wasn’t on any of their lists, then was given the new address and had to drive to the new polling place. All in all it took hours. I still plan to vote in person in the future . . . but mostly because I’m moving back to an area where I never had any problems.

  6. Posted August 8, 2007 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I see the problem as attributable to two factors cited in the article:
    (1) Unmarrieds move around more. It stands to reason that those who are transient are less involved in community, and hence less likely to vote.
    (2) Married women are more engaged in politics. Now this is the problematic, in my view. Assuming this is true, why is it the case? The issue and this blog entry reminds me of Courtney’s post about Didion: http://www.feministing.com/archives/007439.html
    Navel gazing over action. The question that looms large in my mind is: do single women tune out politics because it’s boring? And if you look around here, you might say “yes.” Because the bloggers here seem more interested in talking about issues they can personalize, e.g. this entry (“let me tell me about my gender neutral inconsequential trip the to polls”), the blog entry about the Givhan breast column, the entry about Thompson’s wife, etc.
    As the Alternet article observes, the female electorate may be more engaged if they were to see themselves better represented. The success of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is nothing short of groundbreaking. But there’s little coverage of her candidacy here, unless it involves something that we can all personalize.
    Yeah, I get it, there’s no vagina litmus test. But that goes to the issue of endorsement, not coverage. Coverage of Clinton’s candidacy and the debates (and Clinton has by and large cleaned her male opponents clocks) has been anemic here.

  7. Posted August 8, 2007 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Jayble – I live in a very urban area, and fortunately I’ve also had good experiences with volunteers at the polls. Several years ago I walked to the wrong polling place and didn’t have enough time to get to the correct one before the polls closed, so one of the workers drove me to the right location to be sure I had the chance to vote.

  8. Posted August 8, 2007 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    I think it is mostly logistical issues. We move around more and with each move you are in a new precinct. I moved down the street last year (which is apparently a different precinct) and don’t know if my information was changed with the voter registration folks when I changed my address with the secretary of state or what. Its not like they keep us well-informed on how to find out. Additionally, just about all unmarried women have to work (and many attend school as well) while there is a large segment of married women who don’t work outside the home, so they can include popping by the polling station while out doing household errands or dropping the kids off at school. That is NOT to say that married women aren’t very busy and that most of them don’t work (I am fully aware that they do), but that segment may be enough to offset the statistics. I really wanted to vote in the congressional elections, but with school and work, it just wasn’t logistically possible. My bet would be that if they compared unmarried women to working married women, the rates would be about the same.
    Additionally, if people didn’t have such a need for instant gratification, they could spread voting out over several days to give more people an opportunity to vote.
    That being said, I will defiantly vote in the next election no matter what. Now if I could just figure out if I am registered…

  9. Posted August 8, 2007 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I think it is mostly logistical issues. We move around more and with each move you are in a new precinct. I moved down the street last year (which is apparently a different precinct) and don’t know if my information was changed with the voter registration folks when I changed my address with the secretary of state or what. Its not like they keep us well-informed on how to find out. Additionally, just about all unmarried women have to work (and many attend school as well) while there is a large segment of married women who don’t work outside the home, so they can include popping by the polling station while out doing household errands or dropping the kids off at school. That is NOT to say that married women aren’t very busy and that most of them don’t work (I am fully aware that they do), but that segment may be enough to offset the statistics. I really wanted to vote in the congressional elections, but with school and work, it just wasn’t logistically possible. My bet would be that if they compared unmarried women to working married women, the rates would be about the same.
    Additionally, if people didn’t have such a need for instant gratification, they could spread voting out over several days to give more people an opportunity to vote.
    That being said, I will defiantly vote in the next election no matter what. Now if I could just figure out if I am registered…

  10. Posted August 8, 2007 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I find this interesting…
    About two years ago my parents decided to get divorced after close to 20 years of marriage. My mom and dad were (and are) very up to date with current events etc, and they ALWAYS voted. However, in the recent federal (Canadian) and local municipal elections, my mom had to be forced to the voting booth! I have no idea why this is, it baffles me, perhaps it is the idea of her newfound “freedom”? Perhaps my mom can’t help but see the legion of white, middle-aged men that she has no choice but to vote for and thinks she should forget about it altogether? No matter what, I dont agree with it…

  11. SarahMC
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s partly a logistical issue, like Catharine said.
    I disagree with the assertion that women like us who talk on blogs aren’t politically active, though. Just the opposite! Why would we be on here, paying attention to what’s going on in the world, if we didn’t care? My friends and I all vote, that’s all I know. But I have smart friends. :)
    A new girl (23 y/o) moved into my house this spring… my other roomie and I were talking about politics or something and she made some disparaging remark about Bush. New roomie said, “Yeah, I don’t feel like I can say anything because my opinion is that if you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” I was horrified that she actually admitted to not voting. IMO, that’s like admitting you don’t wash your hands after peeing. People have different levels of interest in the political process, which is sad because politics affects EVERYONE – whether they choose to vote or not.

  12. missjulied
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    I wish more states offered voting by mail. I find it *very* convenient, and I find that I vote more regularly now that I’m in a state that allows it as compared to when I was in a state that did not.
    Seems like having mail voting as an option could make it easier for so many people: parents with small children at home, chronically ill/bedridden, people with inflexible work schedules, people who travel for work, etc.

  13. Posted August 8, 2007 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    For me personally, although I do vote, it’s an issue of time. I have to fund AND run a household all by myself — marrieds have the advantage of splitting up labor, which leaves them more time AND money. Plain and simple, it’s easier for them to live LIFE.
    It’s almost enough to make me want to shack up with someone for convenience purposes alone. Living as a single woman in an expensive, busy city is indescribably difficult. Frankly, and sorry to be so harsh, I know they’re/you’re not bad people, but I sometimes resent married people a little bit. There are just So Many perks, socially, pragmatically, professionally, etc. Incredibly frustrating.
    I think a good way to get single PEOPLE to vote would be to, for one thing, promise to get rid of the single penalty tax (that’s right, folks, there is a tax penalty to being single — but you’ll never hear a candidate talk about it because it’s much more popular to construe things as though there’s a “marriage penalty” tax — in fairness, it’s kind of how you look at it, rather than any one status being automatically more beneficial). Basically, if you’re single you have to earn LESS than a married couple has to collectively earn, in order to get certain kinds of tax benefits and discounts. If a working person marries someone who doesn’t work, that person essentially gets a tax benefit for being married. This kind of bullshit goes on all the damn time, in lots of different rules, not just taxes — a good pro-singles candidate would point this stuff out and promise to do something about it.

  14. SarahMC
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Copyedits, I think you may have unwittingly uncovered the real reason for the married/unmarried voting trends!
    Married women need to protect their marriages from the gays! They’re motivated to hit the polls because their marriages are often at stake!

  15. Posted August 8, 2007 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    First of all, Jane, I’d like to say that I don’t see anything wrong in personalizing politics. I think that it’s perfectly natural and positive to care most about issues that affect your life direct– as long as you don’t ignore every other issue in the process.
    As for the anecdote, hey, some like anecdotes and some don’t. You’re welcome to your opinion. The point that I was trying to make with it was not that my particular visit was gender-biased or particularly consequential, but that a similar situation could, in fact, have dramatic consequences on someone who is not as interested in and dedicated to politics as I am (politics are a very big part of my life). I don’t expect everyone to have my same level of passion about voting. If I didn’t have that passion, I can in fact say that the experience would probably deter me from voting in any non-presidential election. The point was also that I am a young woman, and the voting system, from my personal experience, seems particularly geared towards an older, experienced voting crowed. Unmarred women have a tendency to be younger than married women, and so, yes, I do think that the anecdote was relevant.

  16. kissmypineapple
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    The question that looms large in my mind is: do single women tune out politics because it’s boring? And if you look around here, you might say “yes.”
    Not everyone who posts here is single.

  17. BEG
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    I’ve not had that sort of belittling experience at votor booths. Finding your spot and voting are pretty straightforward here in CA. My main issue is the time, especially when they choose to use the local elementary school — forget going in the morning when you’re competing with all the kids being dropped off, and after work is usually too late. So, I have two words:
    Absentee Ballots
    *kisses envelope* *MWAH*

  18. BEG
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I’ve not had that sort of belittling experience at votor booths. Finding your spot and voting are pretty straightforward here in CA. My main issue is the time, especially when they choose to use the local elementary school — forget going in the morning when you’re competing with all the kids being dropped off, and after work is usually too late. So, I have two words:
    Absentee Ballots
    *kisses envelope* *MWAH*

  19. Doug S.
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Not to be cynical or anything, but one reason not to vote is that individual votes – at least in the United States – often don’t matter. If, like most people, you live in a gerrymandered district, chances are the incumbent is going to win with something like 80% of the vote. The other party may not even be running a candidate in your district at all! And we all “know” that politicians do the bidding of those who make big campaign contributions anyway, so why bother? Just ask any economist about voting…
    (For the record, I do vote.)

  20. desdeBsAs
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I’m the woman this is all about, single, employed, interested in politics (of the world, not just the US). Still I choose not to vote. I’ve lived overseas for most of my voting years and always voted absentee. The last time was the year 2000. Need I say more?
    Maybe there should be a study that looks at what percentage of single women voted before 2000 vs. now.

  21. Posted August 8, 2007 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    That’s fair. I give you credit for internal consistency, and I mean that sincerely. And if you all want to perpetuate a system designed to stall social change, go on ahead. Just don’t complain when nothing happens.

  22. Posted August 8, 2007 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I’m not really sure what bad system you think we’re perpetuating.

  23. manda
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Wow, it’s terrible that so many people have had negative experiences. I’ve voted in three districts (St. Louis area, Seattle area, and Chattanooga area) and I’ve never had a problem. I guess I just really lucked out. Hopefully everyone will have it a little easier next time around.
    Also, I feel the same way as SarahMC – voting is just like washing your hands. I guess it has just always seemed like such a big deal that I can’t imagine not voting unless some serious problem prevented me from getting to the polls on time.

  24. bailey_comus
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    i’ve voted in person for all of my adult life in LA, NM, CO, MD & AZ. My experience has been pretty consistent regardless of where i go – lots of either grumpy or disorganized retirees working the polls, and a lot of waiting.
    It used to bug me but now i tend to butt in and make informational signs and direct people to the right lines while i wait my turn to vote.
    i wish that i didn’t always seem to have work deadlines concurrent with election day b/c i think it would be fun to work the polls. But then again i like talking to strangers and telling them where to go and what to do.
    Note to people with flexible schedules – a lot of these election day polling gigs are PAYING. Not a huge amount of money – like 100 dollars for a long day but if you wanted to work at the polls anyway, it’s always nice to get lunch money and then some. If you had a negative experience in your district,it is possible to step in and change it…and get paid for it.

  25. Posted August 8, 2007 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    (I left this comment over at The Curvature too.)
    I’d also like to know more about the data on these single women. Are they part of couples, but unmarried? Urban dwellers? Are they property owners? What are the comparable rates of unmarried men? (I’d be unsurprised if they were higher, given how white and male politics remains.)
    Looking at the summary stats from WVWV, unmarried women are younger (64yo) than the general population (i.e., we’re skewed towards the ends of the age spectrum): 44% vs. 29%, respectively. We’re also more likely to be unemployed or retired. Seems to me unmarried women are disproportionately individuals who have less attachment to the political system, which is skewed towards working adult taxpayers.
    My additional assumption is that given politics has a masculine image (as I just described), generally speaking women might identify less and engage less with the political process (of course, female political activists should have a higher level of engagement for this very reason). Given a pretty high level of political apathy in our country to begin with, and a culture that discourages women from being assertive, independent, etc. (no matter how subtle at times) and to spend their free time staying thin and looking for a man, then who among these able-bodied women has time to vote?
    Obviously, I’m speaking in somewhat dramatic, broad strokes, but those are my off-the-cuff hypotheses.

  26. Posted August 8, 2007 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Whoa, sorry for totally posting incessantly just now!

  27. Posted August 8, 2007 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    My comment got chopped up somehow…
    unmarried women are disproportionately younger (64yo) than the general population. This plus our less-likely-to-be-employed status must have a lot to do with it (see my original comment above).

  28. bailey_comus
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    oops i didn’t answer the question.
    i know there are a lot of politically savvy young women in the US, but there may be many others that don’t really realize the implications of the more tedious voting measures – and perhaps they’re turned off to it because they don’t see how it benefits them. Or, if they’re not interested in voting for those measures they may let their registration lapse so they end up not being able to vote for the ‘big’ elections.
    When i was younger, i didn’t see how arcane property tax or sales tax measures affected me either positively or negatively. now that i’m older (and am working as an architect), i tend to vote my ‘pocketbook’ for issues that result in new construction. I’ve had enough health issues that i vote for measures that better public health, especially for lower income folks. i think public schools are important and even though i’m childless and will probably never adopt, i vote FOR measure to properly fund public schools.
    i also just realized that here in AZ we’re closing in on the registration deadline for voting in the upcoming september elections. Thanks to this post, i just sent an e-mail to my entire office reminding them and offering them registration forms…that i just happen to have.
    in addition to discussing the WHY’s, why not make sure that all of YOUR friends (married, unmarried, gay and wanting to be married and so forth) and family are registered to vote for your area’s september elections?

  29. oenophile
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    So, what do you think? What are your experiences? How do you think that the voting process keeps younger and unmarried women out, and what can we do to correct it?
    Well, I don’t think that the system works against single women, just against people who don’t care enough.
    I’ve voted in every election since I was old enough. The people in my hometown were very nice about helping me out and telling me where to go; the precinct maps were easy to follow (none of this nonsense about each side of the street).
    I’ve heard that there are four “M”s for getting women to vote Republican: marriage, mortgage, munchkins, and money markets.
    Married women with kids, a home, and a retirement fund are much more likely to vote Republican.
    Even going back to married v. single, those with a home have a much larger stake in local elections (which often decide property tax; those with kids have a large incentive to be involved in local elections and school issues; those who are older probably see the importance of politics in their lives more than young people. (How many 17-year-olds care about who is on the Supreme Court?) Those things correlate with marriage.

  30. Posted August 8, 2007 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    my comment got hacked again…
    we are more likely to be under 25 yrs and over 64 yrs old than the gen’l pop…
    jheez!

  31. oenophile
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    PS. I know how much women had to fight to be able to vote in America. I realise that Susan B. Anthony went to jail; that the suffragists were scorned, humiliated, and told to keep in their place; and that the 19th Amendment almost didn’t pass.
    I realise that in many countries, women cannot vote or hold office. To me, it is an abdication of responsibility to NOT vote, as I may as well not be allowed to if I don’t exercise that right. I see no reason to voluntarily disenfranchise myself. I also see no reason to lessen the contributions of early feminists, who would have gladly voted if given the chance. It also seems like a slap in the face to every woman in a misogynist country that cannot vote, but would want to, to have this right (which all women should have, by virtue of being adult humans) and to not use it.
    Rant over. I would hope that we could communicate to young women the importance of voting and the fact that what they take for granted is actually a very rare thing, historically and in many parts of the world.

  32. liontamer
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    I suspect there’s a huge confound of age and financial stability.
    18 yo/ working part time/still in school women are probably less likely to vote than 32 yo professionals with mortgages.
    Marriage sounds like a random third variable

  33. Persephone
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    The first time I went in to vote there was someone standing next to the booths giving newcomers help if they needed it, so everything was very easy.
    In my experience, the younger women I have encountered have given me many reasons for not voting, from “I feel like everything is going fine the way it is and will vote when I feel that an issue is serious enough.” to, “I didn’t feel like it.” to, “I don’t care, my vote doesn’t make a difference.”

  34. werechick
    Posted August 9, 2007 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Marriage is a class issue in our society, though, more and more so with each passing year. What it’s likely measuring is social class.

  35. waxghost
    Posted August 9, 2007 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I’ve moved much more often than every three years and I’ve still voted in every election that I could. This includes voting in Eastern Washington, Seattle, and Oklahoma, and I’ve never encountered a polling place where anyone was less than helpful. But most of my polling places have been populated by sweet old ladies who probably had visions of themselves when they were young to make them more helpful to me.
    It seems like trying to pinpoint any one thing that prevents single women from voting is silly. I bet it is a little bit of everything that people have mentioned. As Samhita (I think it was) already pointed out, this is a pretty diverse group, so the obstacles to each of the subgroups are probably very different.
    And I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the ideas that kept women from getting the vote for so long – particularly the absurd idea that politics would somehow “soil” women – that still exist in some part today. A big part of my interest in politics was inspired by my father and uncle actually talking to me about politics when I was a teenager, and telling me things like, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” If it weren’t for that, I doubt I would have taken much interest at all. I can’t even think of another girl I’ve known who is the same age as me that has had that kind of emphasis on the importance of politics; it is still all about learning to look pretty for the boys and be a mommy when the time comes. So I don’t think we should discount the role of gender stereotypes in keeping women away from the polls.

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