September 09, 2020

As the 2020 presidential election draws closer, Nicholas Clark and Rolfe Peterson, both associate professors of political science at Susquehanna University, have published research identifying an elusive subset of “voter” – the nonvoter.

“While voter turnout has been a subject of research for decades, comparatively little attention has been paid to nonvoters,” Clark said. “Just as voters can be mobilized by demographic and contextual factors, we found that these factors can serve to demobilize people as well.”

The integrity of electoral processes has come under sharp examination in the United States since the Bush-Gore presidential election of 2000, Clark and Peterson write, leading to many changes in election administration, from the expansion of alternative voting sites, voter identification laws and an overhaul of voting machines nationwide. In the same period, states have redrawn their congressional district boundaries, resulting in an increase in gerrymandering.

Subsequently, courts at all levels have interjected in the process to interpret election laws, sparking research into the effects that election processes have on voter turnout and on election integrity.

Using data from 7,365 respondents to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study and the Electoral Integrity Project, Clark’s and Peterson’s research, published recently in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, identifies four potential types of nonvoters:

  • Incapable (40%) – The incapable nonvoter lies between the apathetic and obstructed nonvoter. The incapable nonvoter may be interested in the political process but is unable to vote due to personal reasons, such as not having transportation or having an illness on election day.
  • Conditional (26%) – The conditional nonvoter expresses an interest in the political process and has voted in past elections, but actively chooses not to participate in the most recent election due to dissatisfaction with or ignorance about the candidates.
  • Apathetic (15%) – The apathetic nonvoter lacks any real interest in the political process, believing that electoral outcomes do not affect their own life. This person typifies the assumptions often made about those individuals who do not participate in elections.
  • Obstructed (5%) – The obstructed nonvoter holds a high level of interest in the political process and actively seeks to participate in elections. However, issues related to the integrity, reliability and/or accessibility of the electoral process (such as overly long lines or intimidation at the polls) effectively prevents them from casting a ballot.

The largest category of nonvoters, incapable, covers those who were not registered, were out of town, were sick or disabled on election day, experienced bad weather, did not know where to vote or did not feel they knew enough about the choices in the election.

Clark and Peterson suggest early voting and same-day registration would decrease numbers of incapable nonvoters.

“The greater flexibility permitted by these laws should enable voting for individuals with more restrictive schedules,” they said.

For conditional nonvoters, contextual factors are most at play. Clark and Peterson suggest the competitiveness of the election may be the biggest motivator in getting these would-be voters to the polls.

“Competitive elections may prompt candidates to more strongly distinguish themselves from the opposition and mitigate a sense of malaise around an election by interjecting greater energy and a sense of urgency into the act of voting,” they said. “Additionally, more competitive elections may reduce the likelihood of obstructed abstaining by making individuals more willing to push through obstacles to cast a ballot when the outcome is perceived as more consequential.”

Despite the attention it received in research and by popular media, only 5% of respondents said that they did not vote because they did not have the correct identification, the lines at the polling place were too long, they were not allowed to vote or they did not receive an absentee ballot.

“While a relatively small percentage of this sample, 5% of nonvoters would represent a sizeable number of Americans,” Peterson said.

Taken as a whole, their findings make a case that nonvoters cannot be lumped into a single category.

“Just as there are diverse explanations for a person’s decision to vote or to support a particular candidate, there are different motivations for why people do not vote,” Clark said. “If the implicit assumption in research and political discourse is that more turnout is better, then our research illuminates some of the reasons why people do not vote and also suggests ways to increase turnout.”