If the presidential election that got buttoned up with Monday’s meeting of the Electoral College didn’t pique your civic interest enough to actually cast a ballot this fall, one wonders what it would take to get you to vote. Not since President William McKinley won a second term by defeating the populist William Jennings Bryan in 1900 has such a large portion of the voting-eligible population cast a vote for president. For the record, participation this year was about 67%.
Still, the fact remains, a vast number of people did not go to the polls or mail in a ballot — nearly as many as the 81.2 million who voted for Democrat Joe Biden. And a recent poll commissioned by National Public Radio and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism offers some unsettling insights into who those people are and why they didn’t bother.
It’s no surprise that many are cynical about politics, but judging from the survey’s results, non-voters are only moderately more likely to agree with statements such as, “Traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me,” or “The American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful.” A depressing portion of the 1,843 adults surveyed during early- to mid-November — voters and non-voters alike — agree with those sentiments.
However, the non-voters were far more likely to accept statements such as, “It makes no difference who is elected president — things go on just as they did before” and “I’m only one person, so my vote doesn’t make a difference.” Generally speaking, non-voters in the poll were also younger, their incomes tended to be smaller, and fewer had a college education. A significantly larger portion were Latino as compared to the overall population.
A report by Medill News Service quoted Adrian Olmos, 30, of Georgetown, Texas, commenting after the survey on why he didn’t vote: “I’ve heard every president in every election is always promising something different. But what I see is everything really stays the same, nothing ever changes, at least not for people like me or people I’m around.”
The philosophical difference may be small between a voter’s cynicism about how much political parties actually care about regular working people, and not believing that voting really makes a difference. But it’s an important gap. One on side are the merely disgruntled, on the other are those who’ve checked out completely.
This doesn’t just apply to voting, either. Voters were more than twice as likely to have volunteered for a nonprofit group or religious organization in the past year, the poll found. Voters were almost three times as likely to be active in a community group unrelated to politics.
Research tells us voters are also more likely to pay their taxes, contribute to local charities and engage in neighborhood efforts, whether it’s picking up litter, raising money for a playground or organizing a neighborhood watch. That is to say they are civically engaged and net contributors to a community’s social capital. Non-voters, on the other hand, are more likely to be isolated from other people.
To be fair, it’s not hard to imagine some people deciding to sit out this election because they were disenchanted with the choices. But when non-voters were asked, “What was it that kept you from voting in this year’s presidential election,” only 1 in 5 said it was because they didn’t like the candidates.
More than half of the non-voters replied that they either weren’t registered to vote or weren’t especially interested in politics. Indeed, a list of 18 possible responses to that question — from being too sick to vote to, improbably, forgetting about the election (some 11 people said that) — read like so many excuses as to why you didn’t come to school with your homework.
The point isn’t to shame people who don’t vote; some surely had legitimate reasons. The more pressing issue is what it says about our country’s future and the strength of our communities when 80 million voting eligible people have an opportunity to cast a ballot in a presidential election like the one we just had but instead decide to skip.
Of the many things that need to be fixed about our government, that one is among the most urgent.
— The Salem News, Beverly, Mass.