People don’t vote for many reasons beyond difficulty in registering and casting ballots

One of the Chamomille Tea Party posters on Flickr (By outtacontext)

One of the Chamomille Tea Party posters on Flickr (By outtacontext)

By Len Lazarick

States have tried a bunch of techniques to improve voter turnout on Election Day, and described a number of them in two articles last week. But according to some studies and polls, no matter how easy officials make it, more than a third of the voting age population will still not cast a ballot.

The first article on early voting found that the opening the polls early has cost Maryland counties over $2 million per election, but has not substantially increased turnout. Only in states where prospective voters can show up and register on the same day has early voting increased turnout.

In a second article, a seminar organized by the University of Maryland suggested, among other things, that Internet voting was a way to increase participation. Maryland Reporter readers who commented on the idea freaked out about the potential for fraud.

Nonvoters support Obama

Last month, USA Today published a poll of unlikely voters it did with Suffolk University in Boston. It found that people who are eligible to vote but aren’t likely to do so “back Obama’s re-election over Republican Mitt Romney by more than 2-1. Two-thirds of them say they are registered to vote. Eight in 10 say the government plays an important role in their lives.”

“Even so, they cite a range of reasons for declaring they won’t vote or saying the odds are no better than 50-50 that they will: They’re too busy. They aren’t excited about either candidate. Their vote doesn’t really matter. And nothing ever gets done, anyway,” said USA Today.

“The long-term trend tends to be awful,” Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate told USA Today. “There’s a lot of lack of trust in our leaders, a lack of positive feelings about political institutions, a lack of quality education for large segments of the public, a lack of civic education, the fragmenting effects of waves of communications technology, the cynicism of the coverage of politics — I could go on with a long litany.”

One of the Chamomille Tea Party posters on Flickr (By outtacontext)

One of the Chamomille Tea Party posters on Flickr (By outtacontext)

What this poll and other studies suggest is that not voting will not be cured by making it easier to register and easier to vote.

Nonvoters less engaged, bored, ill-informed

In collaboration with the Associated Press, the Pew Center for the People and the Press did a poll in 2006 to identify why people don’t vote.

Compared with Americans who regularly cast ballots, the Pew-AP poll found, intermittent voters and nonvoters “are less engaged in politics. They are more likely to be bored with the political process and admit they often do not know enough about candidates to cast ballots.”

Intermittent voters — citizens who are registered to vote but do not always make it to the polls – “differ significantly from those who vote regularly,” the Pew Center found. “For one thing, they’re less likely to be married than are regular voters. Intermittent voters also are more mistrustful of people compared with those who vote regularly. They also are less angry with government.”

The survey also found “large differences between Americans who are not registered to vote or vote only rarely, and intermittent or regular voters. The two groups at the bottom of the voting participation scale are much less likely than regular or intermittent voters to believe that voting will make much of a difference.”

Census finds lack of interest, dislike of candidates

In addition to these polls, the U.S. Census has been asking people who votes, who doesn’t and why they don’t. A Psychology Today article in December summarized the findings for the 2008 presidential election.

“Topping the list of reasons for not voting is a lack of interest (13%) or a dislike of the candidates or issues (13%),” Psychology Today said. “More than a quarter of registered nonvoters in 2008 didn’t vote because they weren’t interested or didn’t like their choices.”

Many reported illness or disability (15%), especially among older registered nonvoters.  Others were too busy, or had conflicting schedules (17%).  That’s about a third of the registered nonvoters.

Of the remainder, many had some logistical problem with the process:  6% had problems with their voter registration, 3% did not have a convenient polling place and another 3% had some sort of transportation problem.

These polls, studies and surveys suggest that most of the people who don’t vote are not engaged in their community, don’t find much difference in the candidates or parties and don’t think their participation will make much difference.

But the large sample in the Census report indicates that some changes in the voting process and registration could lead perhaps 10% more of the nonvoters to cast their ballots.

Restrictions on voting are deliberate, one professor says

There are naysayers in the studies about why people don’t vote. Chief among them is Frances Fox Piven, a City University of New York sociologist, who for a quarter century has been saying that the whole process of registration is designed to suppress the vote of the lower classes. Much of her thesis can be found in the 2000 edition of the book “Why Americans Still Don’t Vote.”  A good portion of the book is available online.

Piven argues that the voter registration process, begun by reformers in the late 19th century to deal with urban voter fraud, was actually a way to keep the poor and downtrodden from exercising the franchise. Piven, a radical and a Democratic Socialist, has a similar opinion of voter ID laws, now passed in 30 states.

The polls, and particularly the Census data, confirm that if those people who rarely or never vote made it to the polls, the election of President Obama and other Democrats would be easily assured. But most state legislatures have not focused their attention to bring those nonvoters to the polls. Even in Maryland, efforts to improve turnout, especially among intermittent or nonvoters has not proved very much, even with early voting and absentee balloting that requires no excuse.

About The Author

Len Lazarick

Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.


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  2. Dale McNamee

    Yet, they can vote for American Idol, etc., and whether the Ravens will go to the Super Bowl or the Orioles going for the pennant…

    Those who don’t vote for a few elections should be purged from the rolls…Fat Chance ! We can’t even purge the rolls of dead voters or those who have moved, etc.

    We should be glad that we have the right to vote…Or would these “voters” prefer that we change leadership via armed fighting like Syria,etc. or rigged elections like Cuba, Venezuela ?

  3. Cindy Walsh

    I have filed 2 complaints with the FEC on election fraud in the Baltimore area involving a complete blackout of media coverage of primary challengers in all elections. We see a rigorous coverage of Presidential primaries and Montgomery County primaries but you cannot beg, plead, or buy your way to coverage in Baltimore area elections. If a challenger can’t get name recognition from media coverage and especially debates they can’t fund raise. So, the fraud in Maryland’s elections is election fraud, not voter fraud and that is why people don’t come out to vote…..they have no candidate.

  4. hungrypirana

    People who don’t vote lack conviction about government and politics. It’s better if they don’t vote.

  5. David Zwald

    Interesting article! I recommend Dan Bongino to those who are “bored or disinterested” in the political process. He will make you think – about this country, about our precious freedoms. He will force you to think through what you are hearing in the same old politics as usual “that nothing gets done.” If I was a young person today, I would be disenchanted with the rhetoric about things I don’t care about. Obama disappointed the idealogical viewpoint that heaven on earth had arrived. That he was someone who was going to cross party lines and get people working together. What young people want is what everyone wants. A future – a better life – a job. The idealogy of Barack Obama, Ben Cardin, Steny Hoyer, and Donna Edwards is that big government knows the right answers. But big government has never worked. Central planning has never worked. Entitlements and government loans and bailouts never work. Government ishould provide protections that individuals cannot do on their own – defense, justice, police and fire rescue. Government that constantly gives away goodies and borrows money to do so is corrupt. We must understand that the rhetoric that supports those policies is suspect. People, a little healthy skepticism from two 45 year government officials (Hoyer and Cardin) and President Obama, a man who has misrepresented himself at every walk of life to conceal what he really believes, and Ms. Edwards, who is a card carrying member of the American Socialist Party would be refreshing, and would begin making politics interesting and would get people engaged again. Maybe they would even vote!

    • Dale McNamee


      You wrote that ” Ms. Edwards, a member of the American Socialist Party, would be refreshing …”

      Isn’t the Democrat Party the same as the American Socialist Party ?

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