Research Reports

American Democracy in Crisis: The Challenges of Voter Knowledge, Participation, and Polarization




The Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic have published results from the first in a series of polls exploring challenges to democratic institutions and practices. The Joyce Foundation, together with our colleagues at the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation and the Minnesota-based McKnight Foundation, is supporting this effort to learn how all Americans, and especially those in this part of the country, experience and perceive democracy.

After the 2016 election, much ado was made about the “Midwestern voter” and the disconnect between national politics and the lived experience in the middle part of the country. Our hope is that this series of polls, “American Democracy in Crisis” – with oversamples in Great Lakes states – will tell us how people in our region think about and experience democracy: how likely they are to vote, barriers in exercising their right to vote, what sort of voting reforms they support, concerns about government, their views on the state of the nation, and more.

Over the course of this series, we will share our analysis of survey findings – what they tell us about democracy in Great Lakes states, and how these insights can inform our collective work in civic engagement, voter participation, voting rights, and other aspects of a healthy democracy.


By Carrie L. Davis, Director, Democracy Program

Key Themes Surface

The first poll focused on voter knowledge, participation, and polarization. Much of the early media coverage of the first poll – see here and here – focused on the partisan divisions it spotlighted. To those of us in the middle of the country, that is perhaps less surprising. What we found more interesting is what the poll revealed about disparities along racial, ethnic, and age lines.

The Joyce Foundation recently adopted a new focus for our work – investing in policies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region. So naturally, data related to racial equity and young adults were key interests of ours and where we begin our analysis.

Different Voter Experiences Along Race, Ethnicity, and Age Lines

One of the most troubling findings in the poll confirms that inequities exist and that people of color experience more barriers to voting than their white counterparts.

African American and Latino voters were two to three times more likely than white voters to report that they or others in their household had trouble exercising their right to vote.

This finding comes at a troubling time, given that the current U.S. Justice Department has significantly scaled back monitoring and enforcement of voter discrimination programs. This shifts the onus to state government and watchdog organizations to monitor the impact of changing voting laws on voter demographics that have historically been targeted by restrictive voter ID requirements and aggressive voter list purging. These practices may appear to be race-neutral on their face but in practice have a disproportionate impact on people of color.

Younger voters likewise report experiencing more barriers to vote.

Younger voters, those age 18-29, also reported experiencing problems at a much higher rate than other age groups the last time they tried to vote.

These are sobering statistics and especially so given current efforts to engage the next generation. There are many high-profile efforts underway this year to register and turn out young voters, including the “Vote for Our Lives” campaign launched out of the March for Our Lives movement. What this data tells us is that more is needed than just registering young people; we also need to make sure these new voters have support to overcome obstacles to their full participation.

Broad support for reforms, but highest among groups reporting barriers

One encouraging note in the polling is that a broad swath of Americans across all demographics support reforms that would increase voter access – such as automatic voter registration, election day registration, and re-enfranchisement for those formerly incarcerated. These reforms, if enacted, would help remove barriers and make the voting process more equitable.

In our next analysis piece about this recent polling, we’ll take a closer look at the poll results within the Great Lakes states and how we compare to the rest of the country.


Listen below as Robby Jones (PRRI) and Emma Green (The Atlantic) discuss the findings on NPR's "On Point":

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

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