4 reasons why many people don’t vote

Scientists have insight into why millions of people who are eligible to vote, won’t

Polls will be open on Election Day, but millions of eligible voters will stay home. Why?


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.

Voting can mean standing in long lines on Election Day.Katie Hargrave/Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)

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.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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