Eligible Voters Who Don't Vote Lack Faith in the System, Study Finds

Eligible Voters Who Don't Vote Lack Faith in the System, Study Finds

A hundred million Americans who are eligible to vote routinely do not due to a lack of faith in the system and/or failure to engage with candidates, a report from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation finds.

Based on national surveys and focus groups conducted as part of the foundation's 100 Million Project, the report, The 100 Million Project: The Untold Story of American Non-Voters (68 pages, PDF), found that the top reason eligible non-voters — defined as those who are not registered to vote or who have voted in only one or fewer of the last six presidential and midterm elections — cite for not voting was that they "didn't like the candidates" (17 percent), followed by "[my] vote doesn't matter" (12 percent), "don't know the candidates" (8 percent), "the system is corrupt" (8 percent), "not interested" (8 percent), and "no time" (8 percent). Indeed, many non-voters — regardless of geography, age, race, gender, education, and income range — described feelings of alienation from and difficulty prioritizing voting.

According to the study, non-voters were less likely than those who vote regularly to say they were very or somewhat confident that votes "are counted fully and reported accurately" (59 percent vs. 76 percent) and that election results "represent the will of the people" (52 percent vs. 63 percent), while they were more likely to say the "system is rigged/corrupt" (27 percent vs. 19 percent). In addition, non-voters were less likely than active voters to follow news and information about politics very or somewhat closely (62 percent vs. 82 percent), feel they have enough information about candidates and issues to make a decision (59 percent vs. 80 percent), regularly volunteer or give to charity, or feel satisfied with their personal lives. The most commonly cited reason for not registering to vote was "I'm not interested/Don't care" (29 percent), followed by "My vote doesn't matter, doesn't count, or won't make a difference" (13 percent).

The study also found that non-voters see immigration (19 percent), health care (13 percent), and jobs and the economy (13 percent) as the most important issues facing the country today, while they are split over issues of policy, with non-voters less likely than active voters to say undocumented immigrants should be given a path to citizenship (62 percent vs. 74 percent) and more likely to say they should be arrested and deported (23 percent vs. 17 percent). In addition, non-voters had a slightly more favorable opinion of the Democratic Party (40 percent vs. 44 percent of active voters) than of the Republican Party (38 percent vs. 37 percent), while a smaller share held an unfavorable (51 percent) as opposed to favorable (40 percent) view of President Trump (compared with 58 percent unfavorable and 40 percent favorable among voters). If they were to vote in the 2020 elections, 33 percent of current non-voters said they would vote for the Democratic presidential nominee, 30 percent said they would vote to re-elect Trump, and 18 percent said they would vote for a third-party candidate.

A separate survey of eligible Gen Z voters (ages 18 to 24) found that they were less likely than members of other cohorts — non-voters and active voters alike — to seek out news and information, closely follow political news, feel they know enough about candidates and issues to know for whom to vote, or have confidence in the election system and process.

"One hundred million Americans persistently sit out a central democratic act. We shouldn't judge them; we should understand them," said Knight Foundation senior vice president and chief program officer Sam Gill. "This study brings us face to face — for the first time — with those who feel disconnected from our political process. If we care about the future of our democracy, we have an obligation to better understand our friends, neighbors, and family members who choose to sit out elections."

"The 100 Million Project: The Untold Story of American Non-Voters." John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Report 02/19/2020. "Landmark Study Reveals Opportunities to Engage Nearly 100 Million Americans Who Don’t Vote." John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Press Release 02/19/2020.