Why Don't More Americans Vote?

Two-Thirds Say Special Interests Control Elections

Voters in Florida waiting in long line to cast ballots
Early Voters In Miami Facing Long Lines. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Why don't more people vote? Let's ask them. The California Voter Foundation (CVF) has released the results of a statewide survey on the attitudes of infrequent voters and citizens eligible to vote but not registered. The first-of-its-kind survey sheds new light on the incentives and barriers to voting, along with the sources of information that influence people when they do vote.

Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election.

Since the 1980s voter turnout has been decreasing steadily in the United States, as well as most other democratic countries worldwide. Political scientists generally attribute falling voter turnout to a combination of disillusionment, indifference, or a sense of futility – the feeling that an individual’s vote will not make a difference. 

“For election officials and others working to maximize voter participation, these survey results provide clear direction on the messages most likely to get infrequent voters to participate in the upcoming election, and on the messages that will motivate more nonvoters to register,” stated the CVF, noting that there are 6.4 million Californians who are eligible but unregistered to vote.

It Just Takes Too Long

“Too long” is in the eye of the waiter. Some people will stand in line for two days to buy the latest, greatest cell phone or concert tickets. But many of the same people will not wait 10 minutes to exercise their right to choose their government leaders. Besides, a 2014 GAO report suggests it doesn’t really take “too long” to vote.

Just Too Busy

The survey found that 28% of infrequent voters and 23% of those unregistered said they do not vote or do not register to vote because they are too busy.

“This tells us that many Californians may benefit from more information about the time-saving advantages of early voting and voting by absentee ballot,” the CVF said. Voter registration forms are available in post offices, libraries and the Department of Motor Vehicle offices in most states.

The CVF said the survey’s findings might also benefit those campaigns trying to reach infrequent and new voters in advance of the election. The perception that politicians are controlled by special interests is widely shared among two-thirds of the survey’s respondents and represents a significant barrier to voter participation. A feeling that candidates don’t really speak to them was cited as the second leading reason why infrequent voters and nonvoters do not vote.

Even Non-Voters Say Voting is Important

Still, 93% of infrequent voters agreed that voting is an important part of being a good citizen and 81% of nonvoters agreed it is an important way to voice their opinions on issues that affect their families and communities.

“Civic duty and self-expression provide strong incentives to get potential voters to the polls, despite pervasive cynicism about the influence of special interests,” said the organization.

Family and Friends Encourage Others to Vote

The survey found that family and friends influence how infrequent voters decide to vote as much as daily newspapers and TV news. Among infrequent voters, 65 percent said conversations with their families and local newspapers were influential sources of information when it comes to making voting decisions. Network TV news rated as influential among 64%, followed by cable TV news at 60%, and conversations with friends at 59%. For more than half of the infrequent voters surveyed, phone calls and door-to-door contact by political campaigns are not influential sources of information when deciding how to vote.

The survey also found that family upbringing plays a strong role in determining voting habits as adults. 51% of nonvoters surveyed said they grew up in families that did not often discuss political issues and candidates.

Who are the Non-Voters?

The survey found that nonvoters are disproportionately young, single, less educated and more likely to be of an ethnic minority than infrequent and frequent voters. 40% of nonvoters are under 30 years old, compared to 29% of infrequent voters and 14% of frequent voters. Infrequent voters are much more likely to be married than nonvoters, with 50% of infrequent voters married compared to only 34% of nonvoters. 76% of nonvoters have less than a college degree, compared to 61% of infrequent voters and 50% of frequent voters. Among nonvoters, 54% are white or Caucasian compared to 60% of infrequent voters and 70% of frequent voters.

Voter Turnout in 2018 Soared 

On a positive note, voter turnout in November 2018 reached the highest level of any midterm election in over a century. According to the non-partisan, non-profit United States Elections Project, 49.3% of all eligible voters cast more than 116 million ballots nationwide. It was the best turnout since 1914 when 50.4% voted and surpassed the previous high turnout of 48.7% in 1966. 

Better yet, 2018 reversed a troubling downward turnout trend. Turnout in the 2010 midterms was 41.8% before dropping to a miserable 36.7% in 2014—the lowest since 1942. 

Of course, voter turnout in midterm elections will always lag far behind that of presidential election years. For example, in 2012, when President Obama was elected to his second term, the turnout was 58.6%. Turnout then jumped to 60.1% in 2016, when Republican Donald Trump defied the polls to be elected president over Democrat Hillary Clinton after an especially contentious campaign