What Keeps Women From the Polls?

Data show that family responsibilities are disproportionately shouldered by women — particularly black women.

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Stephanie Stamm and Lucia Graves
July 30, 2014, 1 a.m.
Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More. National Journal

In her in­sight­ful cov­er story for Na­tion­al Journ­al, Michel Mar­tin of NPR gives a com­pel­ling caveat to Anne Mar­ie Slaughter’s clas­sic piece on why wo­men can’t have it all: Minor­ity wo­men have a harder story to tell.

Many of the struggles wo­men face are uni­ver­sal, Mar­tin says, re­call­ing the time an ed­it­or sent her on as­sign­ment to a city threatened by ice storms while she was still breast feed­ing. But oth­ers, such as the time Mar­tin fi­nally loc­ated a suit­able babysit­ter only to dis­cov­er the wo­man was only in­ter­ested in caring for white kids, are par­tic­u­lar to minor­ity wo­men. (Do your­self a fa­vor and read the full story here.)

Lake Re­search Part­ners’ work for the Voter Par­ti­cip­a­tion Cen­ter un­der­scores the power of Mar­tin’s point. In the Demo­crat­ic polling firm’s ana­lys­is of Census Bur­eau data com­par­ing mar­ried and un­mar­ried voters, one thing stood out: Wo­men were around twice as likely as men to list ill­ness in the fam­ily as among their top reas­ons for not mak­ing it to the polls (oth­er top reas­ons in­cluded “too busy,” “not in­ter­ested,” and “for­got to vote”). And un­mar­ried wo­men were es­pe­cially likely to list fam­ily ill­ness as a reas­on for no-show­ing.

Now re­call that Afric­an-Amer­ic­an wo­men are con­sid­er­ably less likely to marry than white wo­men, mean­ing they’re less likely to have the be­ne­fit of spous­al sup­port, both with re­gard to in­come and fam­ily care­tak­ing. In­deed, LRP’s ana­lys­is showed black wo­men were slightly more likely to list ill­ness in the fam­ily as a reas­on for not vot­ing than white wo­men (22 per­cent as com­pared to 20 per­cent), though Lat­ina wo­men were slightly less likely to do so (16 per­cent), something which may be ex­plained by the fact that their mar­riage pat­terns track more closely to those of whites.

Sadly, un­mar­ried wo­men were the least likely to say that they were “not in­ter­ested” in vot­ing or that they felt their “vote wouldn’t count.” In­deed, they re­por­ted vot­ing much more re­li­ably than un­mar­ried men (55 per­cent versus 45.4 per­cent). Even giv­en this mo­tiv­a­tion, however, something was keep­ing them from the vot­ing booth.

“Race mat­ters,” Mar­tin wrote, “in­clud­ing in the re­spons­ib­il­it­ies of fam­ily life — par­tic­u­larly tak­ing care of the young, the old, and the sick — that still fall mainly to wo­men.” It’s not just that black wo­men are less likely to be mar­ried, Mar­tin says, but that people of col­or are more likely to have ex­pans­ive defin­i­tions of the word fam­ily.

“It’s been my ob­ser­va­tion that minor­it­ies are more likely than whites to be in­volved with or take fin­an­cial re­spons­ib­il­ity for people oth­er than their own chil­dren and par­ents — say, the chil­dren of sib­lings, or even close friends of their own chil­dren,” she wrote. “What’s dif­fer­ent, in short, for so many minor­ity wo­men, is that they can­not help but see them­selves as a part of something lar­ger — per­haps be­cause they know there are obstacles in their lives and the lives of their fam­ily mem­bers that no amount of ‘grit’ will over­come.”

As Mar­tin’s story ex­plains, shoul­der­ing care­tak­ing re­spons­ib­il­it­ies is a bal­an­cing act that af­fects all wo­men, but not equally. So, which pop­u­la­tion is most likely to be af­fected by caring for sick people in the fam­ily? Ac­cord­ing to the data, that would be un­mar­ried wo­men — who, let’s re­call, are dis­pro­por­tion­ately black — over the age of 50. A full 40 per­cent of that pop­u­la­tion said sick­ness — either their own or a fam­ily mem­ber’s — kept them from the polls. That’s more than three times the rate of men in the same cat­egory.


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