Why Americans Don't Vote
Reasons for voting and not voting are explored.
Posted Oct 22, 2020
As we approach the 2020 United States presidential election (Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump), many people (friends, celebrities, public figures) are likely to remind you to vote. But will you vote? Why or why not?
In this post, I explore why people do not vote.
There are countless factors associated with the motivation to vote. For instance, some research suggests people who register to vote are more likely to vote. And, if you voted in the past, you are also more likely to vote in the future.
Voter participation is important because it can give “legitimacy to those in power,” and it “increases the authority of the democratic system as a whole and promotes stability.” Nevertheless, low voter participation, “a sign of apathy towards the democratic system,” is a “widespread phenomenon among major liberal democracies” (p. 265-266).
The specific reasons people do not vote may vary between countries. So, in the rest of the post, I focus on common reasons Americans do not vote. In the 2016 Presidential Election (with Donald Trump defeating Hillary Clinton), the top reasons why 19 million registered voters did not vote were the following:
- Did not like candidates or campaign issues (4.7 million)
- Not interested (2.9 million)
- Too busy, conflicting schedule (2.7 million)
- Illness or disability (2.2 million)
- Other reason (2.1 million)
- Out of town (1.5 million)
- Registration problems (0.8 million)
- Forgot to vote (0.6 million)
- Don’t know or refused (0.5 million)
- Transportation problems (0.5 million)
- Inconvenient polling place (0.4 million)
- Bad weather conditions (0.01 million)
Note, the above numbers varied depending on the group examined. For instance, compared to individuals with less than high school education, those with a bachelor’s degree or higher were 3.5 times more likely to give the reason of being out of town as the explanation for not voting. Similarly, while 20% of people between the ages of 30-44 years cited being too busy to vote, this was an obstacle for only 3% of people 65 years and older.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic might affect the percentages of these reasons; for instance, being out of town is likely to be endorsed by fewer people.
Aside from group comparisons, another way to put these numbers of nonvoters in perspective is to compare these voters with voters in previous elections. For example, compared to the 2000 election, over three times as many registered-to-vote nonvoters in 2016 cited not liking the candidates and campaign issues as the reason for not voting. Might not liking Donald Trump or Joe Biden (or the campaign issues) also discourage some voters this year?
A related question is why people do not even register to vote. Common reasons 33 million Americans did not even register to vote in the 2016 Presidential Election were the following:
- Not interested in the election/not involved in politics (13.6 million)
- Other (5.4 million)
- Did not meet registration deadlines (4 million)
- Not eligible to vote (2.4 million)
- Permanent illness or disability (1.6 million)
- My vote would not make a difference (1.6 million)
- Don’t know or refused (1.5 million)
- Did not know where or how to register (1.1 million)
- Did not meet residency requirements (0.9 million).
- Difficulty with English (0.6 million)
So, the majority of people who did not register to vote simply lacked interested in politics. It would be interesting to examine why there is such a lack of interest in politics, given that it also was the second most common reason given why registered voters did not vote.
It should be noted that the above numbers also varied according to group membership. For instance, difficulty with English was an obstacle for 10% of the “Asian alone, non-Hispanic” group, but only for 1% of “Black alone, non-Hispanic.”
Concluding thoughts on voting vs. not voting
Previous research suggests there are a variety of reasons Americans do not vote—reasons such as declining trust in the political system, political alienation, feelings of powerlessness and “inefficacy,” not qualifying to vote, and the inconvenience of voting (e.g., for older people or those with a disability).
As reviewed in this article, in the 2016 election, the number one reason millions of registered voters chose not to vote was not liking the political candidates or campaign issues. And the number one reason (endorsed by nearly 14 million individuals) Americans did not even register to vote was lack of interest in the election or involvement in politics.
So, how will this election be different?
How many Americans have registered to vote and will actually vote in the 2020 United States presidential election? Will most Americans have the time, ability, and interest to make the effort? Or will numerous Americans choose not to vote, feeling that whether Biden or Trump, Democrats or Republicans, or liberals or conservatives are in power, nothing will really change for better or worse in their lives?