In my senior year of high school, I was sitting in my government class as my teacher begged us to vote. He had to know that he and I would never vote the same way. He used to call me a “dang hippie” instead of using my name. But he met my eyes along with those of every other student in that class. His voice quavered as he implored us — for the sake of our country — to vote.
My teacher was begging because millions of people who can vote, don’t. Voter turnout in the United States is incredibly low compared to similar countries, notes Donald Green. He’s a political scientist at Columbia University in New York City. In fact, U.S. voter turnout ranks 31 out of 35 developed countries — nations with advanced economies and a heavy use of technology. That’s according to a Pew Research Center study released this past summer.
It’s a little surprising that so many Americans don’t vote. Most are fairly interested in politics, notes Mert Moral. He’s a political scientist at the State University of New York at Binghamton. “If you look at survey data, you find more Americans are equally, if not more, engaged than their counterparts [in other countries],” he says. “They have bumper stickers. They talk about politics. They are interested in political topics at the local level.”
So why don’t people vote? Scientists have been looking into this. Below are four reasons they offer to explain why many people do not show up at the polls.
Why don’t people vote?
1) Registration takes work In many countries, being registered to vote is automatic. If you are a citizen, you are signed up to vote. Not so in the United States. It is up to each person there to sign up, notes Barry Burden. He’s a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. To register, someone must go to an official site, such as a library or a government office, then fill out paperwork. A 2012 Pew Research Center study reported that 51 million citizens — nearly one-in-four eligible to vote — had not registered.
Easier registration could mean more voting. Burden and his colleagues showed that during the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, a “one-stop shop” where people could register and vote at the same time increased voter turnout. By contrast, making it easier for people to vote by letting them vote before Election Day (known as early voting), actually lowered the voting rate. The researchers published their findings in 2013 in the American Journal of Political Science.
2) Education Data show that the single biggest predictor of whether someone will vote is whether they hold a college degree, Burden notes. College graduates make more money, on average. They are more likely to look for information about politics. And they are more likely to have friends who vote. People without a college degree, he says, are less likely to seek out political information. They also are less likely to have friends who care about politics or talk about voting.
3) Two parties may not be enough The United States has two main political parties: Republicans and Democrats. Other political parties exist, such as the Green party and the Libertarians. Few people, however, vote for candidates of those “other” parties. This is because U.S. elections only reward what is known as “first past the post.” The one who gets the most votes wins.
In many other countries, such as the United Kingdom, people don’t vote for individuals. They vote for parties to sit in a Parliament. The party that dominates the Parliament gets to pick the Prime Minister. But even a non-dominant party can get one or more members in Parliament — if that party gets enough votes. “A party that got 25 percent of the vote could get 25 percent of the seats,” Burden says. “That’s very encouraging.”
In contrast, it wouldn’t matter if the presidential candidate for the Green party or the Libertarian party got 25 percent of the U.S. vote. If 25 percent wasn’t the highest percentage of votes, their candidate wouldn’t become president. No one else from their party would automatically get a seat in Congress either. Americans vote for candidates for particular, individual seats.
Americans also vote for Congressional candidates only in their particular geographical area. So a candidate from a third party would have to win the majority of votes from their particular area to get the seat in Congress. And many candidates from that party would have to win in many different areas to get enough seats in Congress to pass laws that reflect their party’s values.
Such minor-party candidates seldom raise much money to campaign. Meanwhile, the two big political parties tend to raise lots of money to help their candidates. So third or fourth parties can’t get organized and don’t put forward many (or sometimes any) candidates. After all, what’s the point of putting in a lot of effort if you have little chance of winning?
This promotes a system where candidates tend to be members of only the major political parties. And in a two-party system, voters might not find that either candidate represents their views. And where they don’t, Moral says, voters might just stay home.
“A third-party candidate can’t win an election here,” he says. So where they don’t like the Republican or Democrat running for office, Moral says, people may just not bother to vote at all.
4) Apathy and burnout Who your friends are can affect whether you vote. “We use voting as a tool to transmit to others who we are,” explains Eyal Winter. An economist, he works at the University of Leicester in England and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. Voting — and then telling others that you did, or publicly stating that you plan to — is a way to show loyalty to your social group and its values, he says.
But some people just don’t care about politics, which can lead to voter apathy. And if a social group doesn’t regard politics as very important, its members may not bother to vote, Winter notes. In fact, he says, one might argue that in terms of any one citizen, “it makes no sense to vote.” Only very rarely has a single vote changed the outcome of an election. And where that happened, it usually was only in very small, local elections.
Not only that, where elections occur often, people may experience voter burnout. “One of the things that makes the U.S. strange is that there’s a lot of elections,” says Burden. “We ask voters to make a lot of decisions.” Getting out to the polls can be a hassle. What’s more, learning about every single issue takes time. If people are asked to vote too often, or choose a position on too many subjects, they might just opt out of the whole process. “We have a complicated system and I think that produces fatigue,” Burden says.
There are many other reasons people might not vote — from anger at the government to concern that being a registered voter will make the government more likely to call them up for jury duty. What could change their minds? Read Part 2 to learn about four ways backed by science that can drive more people to the polls.
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apathy A flat mood, where one is indifferent to people, opportunities and the environment around them. It’s marked by a lack of enthusiasm for things, for not caring any more.
behavior The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.
colleague Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.
Congress The part of the U.S. federal government charged with writing laws, setting the U.S. budget, and confirming many presidential appointments to the courts, to represent the U.S. government interests overseas and to run administrative agencies. The U.S. Congress is made of two parts: the Senate, consisting of two members from each state, and the House of Representatives, which consists of a total of 435 members, with at least one from each state (and dozens more for the states with the biggest populations).
developed country Sometimes called an industrialized country, this is a nation that tends to be relatively wealthy on the basis of having substantial commercial and industrial activity. Today, developed countries also tend to be among the more technologically advanced nations.
high school A designation for grades nine through twelve in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.
journal (in science) A publication in which scientists share their research findings with the public. Some journals publish papers from all fields of science, technology, engineering and math, while others are specific to a single subject. The best journals are peer-reviewed: They send out all submitted articles to outside experts to be read and critiqued. The goal, here, is to prevent the publication of mistakes, fraud or sloppy work.
media (in the social sciences) A term for the ways information is delivered and shared within a society. It encompasses not only the traditional media — newspapers, magazines, radio and television — but also Internet- and smartphone-based outlets, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook and more. The newer, digital media are sometimes referred to as social media. The singular form of this term is medium.
network A group of interconnected people or things.
peer Someone who is an equal, based on age, education, status, training or some other features.
political science A social science that deals with the governing of people, largely by elected officials and governments.
political scientist Someone who studies or deals with the governing of people, largely by elected officials and governments.
poll (adj. polling) To sample the opinions of people and tally the total with a survey or vote.
social (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.
social media Internet-based media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, that allow people to connect with each other (often anonymously) and to share information.
social science The scientific study of people and their relationships to each other.
survey (v.) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.
transmit To send or pass along
Report: D. DeSilver. U.S. voter turnout trails most developed countries. Fact Tank Blog, Pew Research Center. August 2, 2016.
Journal: B.C. Burden et al. Election laws, mobilization, and turnout: The unanticipated consequences of election reform. American Journal of Political Science. September 9, 2013. doi: 10.1111/ajps.12063.
Report: E. Klor and E. Winter. On public opinion polls and voters' turnout. Working Paper. Social Science Research Network. September, 2006. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.895946.