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) conducted a statewide survey in 2004 on the attitudes of infrequent voters and citizens eligible to vote but who were not registered. This survey sheds light on the incentives and barriers to voting, along with the sources of information that influence people when they do vote.

Since the 1980s, voter turnout—the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election—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 with elections, indifference or busyness, and a feeling that an individual’s vote will not make a difference.

At the time of this study, there were an estimated 5.5 million Californians eligible to vote but not registered to vote out of a total of 22 million eligible residents.

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 some of these same people will not wait 10 minutes to exercise their right to choose their government leaders. Besides, a 2014 GAO report found the average voter did not wait more than 20 minutes to cast a ballot in the 2012 election.

Just Too Busy

The CVF 2004 survey found that 28% of infrequent voters registered to vote said they do not vote because they are too busy.

In response to these findings, the CVF concluded that educating voters about absentee voting and campaigning for the right to take time off of work to vote could improve voter turnout in California.

Special Interests

Another reason for not voting is the perception that politicians are controlled by special interest groups. This opinion, widely shared among 66% of infrequent voters and 69% of nonvoters, represents a significant barrier to voter participation. A feeling that candidates don’t really speak to them was cited as the second leading reason for why infrequent voters and nonvoters do not vote.

Even Non-Voters Say Voting is Important

Ninety-three percent 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 proved to be strong incentives for voting among people who did vote.

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% 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 (60%) and conversations with friends (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. Fifty-one percent 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. Forty percent 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. Seventy-six percent of nonvoters have less than a college degree, compared to 61% of infrequent voters and 50% of frequent voters. Among nonvoters, 60% are White or Caucasian, compared to 54% of infrequent voters and 70% of frequent voters.

Voter Turnout in 2018 Soared

On a positive note, the November 2018 midterm elections saw a historic voter turnout of 53.4%. The percentage of eligible voters that made their way to the polls increased by 11.5% from the midterms four years prior. The age group that saw the greatest spike in participation was 18- to 29-year-olds, with the voter turnout for this group increasing from 19.9% in 2014 to 35.6% in 2018.

Better yet, 2018 reversed a troubling downward turnout trend for midterm elections. Turnout in the 2010 midterms was 45.5% before dropping to a miserable 41.9% in 2014. This steady decline had been happening since approximately 1982.

Of course, voter turnout in midterm elections will always lag far behind that of presidential election years. For example, in 2012, when President Barack Obama was elected to his second term, the turnout was 61.8%. Turnout dropped slightly to 60.4% in 2016 in the election of Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

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Longley, Robert. "Why Don't More Americans Vote?" ThoughtCo, Oct. 7, 2020, thoughtco.com/why-dont-more-americans-vote-3322088. Longley, Robert. (2020, October 7). Why Don't More Americans Vote? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-dont-more-americans-vote-3322088 Longley, Robert. "Why Don't More Americans Vote?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-dont-more-americans-vote-3322088 (accessed May 28, 2023).