In Action

The United States has the lowest voter turnout of the world’s mature democracies and has had for many decades—nearly 92 million people, nearly half of all eligible votes, in recent elections. Who are the people who don’t vote?

The many analysts tackling this question have proposed numerous, and often conflicting, answers. Dale and Strauss in the American Journal of Political Science argue that many registered voters don’t vote because they forget. Ruy Teixeira, in Why Don’t Americans Vote?, proposes attitudinal change: loss of partisan affiliation and a sense of political efficacy, which he attributed to changes starting in the ’60s, when Democrats restructured their political base and a long series of well-publicized political debacles left voters skeptical and disengaged. Frances Piven and Richard Cloward offer a different approach. They see high non-voting rates as the result of bureaucratic policies that make registration and hence voting difficult for particular (often marginalized) groups that politicians can therefore ignore because they don’t vote. ​

Politico magazine recently summarized the findings of a new study from the Knight Foundation that used modern research tools—polling 13,000 non-voters and follow-up focus groups with thousands—to find out who the non-voters are. They found non-voters comprise three blocs: one large bloc of deeply alienated people (“whenever they engaged with the system it kind of screwed them over”), 2 smaller blocs of “passive liberals,” and a somewhat smaller bloc of “passive conservatives.” They are not evenly distributed geographically—for example, non-voters who would choose Trump outnumber “passive liberals” in many swing states.

The Knight study was designed to test the idea that voting is a social phenomenon. The idea seems to hold up:  people don’t vote because they aren’t asked to and are not connected to groups that do vote. That’s true even in states where registration is easy and non-voters know it is

Interestingly, non-voters are less likely than voters to seek out news, with the latter saying what news they know they learn by “bumping into” it. But opportunities to “bump into” the news are declining (e.g., many fewer “newspaper boxes” on street corners), and social media have become a major source of political news. But, unlike when the major network news providers all basically agreed, news from social media is conflicting and hard to evaluate. Many people don’t try. 

Politico provides an important quote from analyst Rachel Bitecofer: “Democrats are especially prone to this mistake that everybody knows everything and is following the news, and it’s a terrible strategic mistake.”

Judith Taylor

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