Why Don’t People Turn Out for Elections?


Why do so many Americans not vote? According to the Pew Research Center, only 55.7% of the total voting-age population voted in 2016, putting the U.S. a dismal 28th out of 35 developed nations.

So what gives? Why are so many Americans of voting age not voting? As you can imagine, there are a ton of reasons. It’s good to know what these myriad reasons are, as each one will require its own unique constellation of solutions.

Lack of interest or feeling their vote wouldn’t make a difference. The top reason cited by survey after survey of nonvoters is a lack of interest in politics. Lumped into this category are also the voters who don’t care about politics because they feel their vote doesn’t matter–either that their one vote doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, or that in their non-competitive district, their vote doesn’t move the needle.

Dislike of candidates or ballot issues. The next most cited reason by nonvoters are that they don’t like their choice of candidates for a particular election or aren’t motivated by a ballot measure/issue.

Didn’t vote due to illness or disability. A large percentage of nonvoters said they did not vote because they were sick on voting day or because their disability prevented them from voting on voting day. This percentage was significantly higher for the more elderly voters who were surveyed.

Too busy/Had a conflicting schedule. Nonvoters cited not having the time on voting day to be able to vote or that their schedule on voting day prevented them from going to the polls.

Don’t know enough about the candidates/issues to vote. For the group of registered voters who rarely vote, this was by far the biggest issue they cited for not voting. Studies have shown that one’s level of education is correlated to the likelihood of voting — more educated citizens are more likely to seek out information about politics and have friends/family that talk about politics.

Getting registered to vote requires effort. Voters have to remember to get registered themselves (unlike in other countries where it’s automatic), the rules differ from state to state, and you need to check occasionally to make sure you haven’t been incorrectly dropped from the voter rolls. Registered voters vote at a very high rate, but the U.S. has tens of millions of citizens who aren’t getting registered in the first place.

The top 4 reasons why people fail to register in the first place: No time to get it done; Recently moved; Don’t care about politics; and Distrust of the government.

Barriers at the ballot box. Issues such as restrictive Voter ID requirements, getting dropped incorrectly from voter rolls, having polling places be at inconvenient or too few places, restricting the hours that polling places are open, etc. all have a negative impact on voter turnout.

Can’t vote. There are citizens of voting age who are not eligible to vote at all. Some can have their voting rights restored, others cannot.

To conclude, this list is not to depress those of us who are motivated to help increase turnout all over the country. But, we can’t solve a problem we don’t fully understand. Periodically at Political⚡Charge, we’ll delve into the solutions we can all work on to combat these reasons. In the meantime, do suggest your solutions to these issues in the comments below.

For more information about turnout, check out:

Pew Research Center’s report on Who Votes, Who Doesn’t, and Why

Statistic Brain’s big list of 2016 voting statistics can be found at this link 

Be aware: When people calculate turnout numbers, they might be looking at the total voting-age population–i.e. anyone over 18, the total population eligible to vote, or the total number of registered voters. Recognize that not every article explains which of those 3 populations they’re looking at.

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7 replies

  1. It’s a big problem. It sure doesn’t help when one political party is on the side of voter suppression while the other would like to make it easier to vote. Even if Democrats grab the levels of power over the next few years, Republicans will do everything they can to prevent easier pathways to voting. The 60 vote filibuster threshold always seems to stand in the way. Maybe it’s time for Democrats to start acting a bit like their counterparts. What I mean is, we see what they did to Merrick Garland. I think it’s time to start toughening up. Maybe even do the unthinkable … get rid of the filibuster! Do we really think R’s would not do the same? They change the rules all the time when it suits their agenda. Yes, it’s 50 states and 50 different sets of rules. It won’t be easy but these really are desperate times. It calls for desperate measures!

    • Did you get a chance to read “Winning is not enough” in the Washington Monthly recently? He spells out what Democrats should do once in power, including tackling voter suppression in a way we haven’t seen before. It’s here: https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/july-august-2018/winning-is-not-enough/

      • Thank you for that. I will check it out.

      • Thanks for suggesting this article. Wow! Lots of ideas and solutions to complex problems. I sure hope leadership is paying attention. It’s going to be a very difficult path forward. R’s have been masterful in denigrating government for decades now. I see a definite opening for Dems to take control of the narrative. Good governance… anti-corruption…enhanced voting rights… substantial campaign finance.. all worthy goals. Totally agree with the post’s author as it pertains to long-term planning. Dem have fallen so short here. I feel a bit more optimistic after reading this however. Let’s hope leadership gets their act together

      • I, too, felt more hopeful reading it. It also fired up my energy anew. I’d love to see much of what the author suggests happen.

  2. Solutions include:
    1. The equivalent of blue laws for election day. In other words, don’t have any places open except emergency personnel. That takes away the financial/economic barrier. Either do that or allow early voting.
    2. Automatically mail absentee ballots to people who have any type of disability benefits (from disability benefits to disability parking). That takes away the disability barrier.
    3. End voter ID laws.
    4. Bolster civics education so as to emphasize the importance of voting.

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