Poll: Despite Record Turnout, 80 Million Americans Didn't Vote. Here's Why

Dec 15, 2020
Originally published on December 16, 2020 8:22 am

More Americans voted in 2020 than in any other presidential election in 120 years. About 67% of eligible voters cast ballots this year, but that still means a third did not.

That amounts to about 80 million people who stayed home.

To better understand what motivates these nonvoters, NPR and the Medill School of Journalism commissioned Ipsos to conduct a survey of U.S. adults who didn't vote this year. The Medill school's graduate students did deep dives into various aspects of the survey here.

Nonvoters' reasons for not voting include:

  • not being registered to vote (29%)
  • not being interested in politics (23%)
  • not liking the candidates (20%)
  • a feeling their vote wouldn't have made a difference (16%)
  • being undecided on whom to vote for (10%)

They are disengaged, disaffected and don't believe politics can make a difference in their lives. They are also more likely to be Latino, younger, make less money and have lower levels of education than voters.

A lack of engagement overall

Difficulty voting doesn't appear to be a major reason why they don't vote. Three-quarters said they think it's at least somewhat easy to vote.

It's more that these voters feel a sense of alienation and apathy. They are generally detached from the news and pessimistic about politics, the survey found.

Politics is simply not the way to make change, they said. Two-thirds of nonvoters agree, for example, that voting has little to do with the way that real decisions are made in this country; they are 21 points more likely to say so than people who voted.

A majority also said they believe it makes no difference who is elected president and that things will go on just as they did before. Nonvoters were 29 points more likely to say that than people who voted. (Read more about why they didn't vote, in their own words.)

These 80 million Americans are also less engaged in their communities and have less confidence even in their local governments. They're also less likely to volunteer or to be civically engaged — doing things like sending letters to the news media and elected officials or participating in marches, protests and demonstrations.

Nonvoters are also more likely than voters to say that traditional parties and politicians don't care about people like me; the mainstream media is more interested in making money than telling the truth; the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful; success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control; and to feel that most issues discussed in Washington don't affect them personally.

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They are also less likely to say that elections in this country are free and fair for all; to have a favorable opinion of the news media; to watch, read or listen to news every day; or to discuss politics with friends or family. If family and friends vote, that makes people more likely to vote, the survey found.

Nonvoters also mostly shunned news of the presidential election. For example, only 38% said they followed stories about the presidential and congressional campaigns in 2020 at least fairly closely, compared with 79% of people who voted.

And they were far less likely to have watched the debates or conventions. Less than a third watched the presidential debates, compared with almost two-thirds of voters. What's more, two-thirds of nonvoters said they didn't watch the presidential or vice presidential debates or either the Republican or Democratic conventions.

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Campaigns, which have sophisticated data programs showing which are the highest-propensity voters, don't seem to view this group as worth much effort. Less than a quarter of nonvoters said campaigns had reached out to them, offered information or asked them to vote. That's compared to almost half of voters.

Not much, it seems, would motivate them to vote, either. Asked what they think would most encourage people to vote, the top answer was none or nothing (35%). That was followed by cleaning up government (27%), having more candidates to choose from (20%), being automatically registered to vote (16%) and making Election Day a national holiday (15%).

Making Election Day a national holiday, incidentally, was the top answer for voters (42%), showing the disconnect between the groups.

Who are nonvoters?

There are strong socioeconomic correlations between voting and not voting.

Nonvoters tend to make less money, have lower levels of education, be less likely to own their home or are less likely to be married.

While only 21% of voters made $50,000 a year or less, 43% of nonvoters did. Just over a quarter of voters had a high school degree or less, but a majority (52%) of nonvoters did. Sixty percent of voters said they were married, but just 44% of voters did, which impacts economic power in a society when dual-income households are becoming increasingly necessary in more expensive parts of the country.

Nonvoters were also more likely to be young and Latino. Thirty-five percent of nonvoters in this survey were between the ages of 18 and 34, compared with 24% of voters. And notably, a quarter of nonvoters were Hispanic, compared with just 7% of voters.

Latinos tend to lean Democratic, and voter-registration efforts with Latinos in most presidential years are key for Democrats. That was hampered in this year of the coronavirus, and Democrat Joe Biden wound up underperforming in some heavily Latino areas such as South Texas and South Florida.

Latinos are also more likely than other groups to say they are not interested in politics and most haven't voted in any other recent elections.

The top reason Latinos give for why they don't vote is that they don't care much about politics, but another is that they have never been registered.

Only 52% of Latinos surveyed overall said they were registered to vote. That compares to 80% of white respondents and 78% of Black Americans.

But three-quarters of Latino nonvoters surveyed are not registered.

Overall, 70% of nonvoters said they were not registered to vote.


NPR and the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communication commissioned Ipsos to conduct a survey of U.S. adults who voted and did not vote in the 2020 presidential election. The survey of 1,843 adults included 1,103 nonvoters and 740 voters. The survey was conducted using Ipsos' online KnowledgePanel from Nov. 4-13.

Overall, the survey has a +/-2.9 percentage point margin of error for all adults; for nonvoters, it is +/- 3.5 points; for voters, it is +/- 3.9 percentage point margin.

The Medill School of Journalism's stories, produced by graduate students in its Washington program, are available at www.nonvoters2020.com.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This year's presidential election saw the highest voter turnout in 120 years. Two-thirds of eligible voters cast ballots, that still means a third did not, which is almost 80 million Americans who didn't participate. NPR partnered with Ipsos and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University to survey nonvoters to find out why they didn't show up and vote. NPR's Domenico Montanaro analyzed the results and he's here with us. Good morning, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: What's the reason? Why did people say they didn't participate this year?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, look; it is a lot of people, which is why we were curious to do this survey considering the narrative of this being such a record turnout year, which it was. You know, look; a lot of nonvoters are just outside the system. They don't trust politics. They aren't interested in it. They aren't even registered to vote. They don't like the candidates. And they don't think that their vote makes much of a difference. They're less engaged in their communities, less likely to volunteer or be part of civic groups. And they trust even their local leaders and local governments less than people who voted.

The bottom line here is that this is a group that's pretty disengaged. Take the presidential election, for example. It was everywhere, obviously - record-setting $7 billion was spent to put it front and center. And yet nonvoters didn't pay much attention. Just 38% said they followed the news of the campaign at least somewhat closely, compared to 79% of people who voted.

MARTIN: So clearly, as you've indicated, these are people who aren't engaged in civic life. But tell us a little bit more about who they are.

MONTANARO: You know, overall, nonvoters tend to be younger than voters. Thirty-five percent of the nonvoters in this survey were between the ages of 18 and 34. Nonvoters are more likely to be Latino, make less money, be less likely to own a home or be married, which, of course, can affect economic power. And they have lower levels of education. What really jumped out, though, is that a quarter of nonvoters in this survey are Latino. Compared to voters, Latinos are just 7% in this poll. So you know, really, a lot of them are just sitting it out. Latino nonvoters are more likely than others to say they don't have an interest in politics. And just half of Latinos in this survey were registered to vote, far below Black and white Americans. About eight in 10 of them are registered.

MARTIN: Is there anything that these Americans say would motivate them to vote in the future?

MONTANARO: You know, there really isn't a lot. When we asked that question, the top answer was none or nothing. More than a third of nonvoters said that. It's a group, really, who are tremendously disaffected and disengaged, don't believe politics can make a difference. There were some things that could help, like showing the government was cleaned up or making Election Day a national holiday. You know, but 70% of nonvoters are actually not registered to vote and thought that maybe being automatically registered to vote could help. And only a quarter of them said that campaigns had reached out to them at all this year, Latinos in particular, the largest growing group in the U.S. But voter outreach and voter registration efforts were really hampered this year by the pandemic.

MARTIN: So when so many people don't participate in the democratic system through an election, what does that mean for representation in our democracy?

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, look; there are strong socioeconomic correlations when it comes to who votes and who doesn't. And as a society, I think we really have to think about, you know, the fact that big portions of Latinos, for example, the largest growing group in the country, outside the political system that's making policy decisions about their communities. And, you know, that kind of thing only perpetuates the types of policies that keep things the way they are.

MARTIN: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico. We appreciate it.

MONTANARO: Yeah. You're welcome, Rachel. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GREG FOAT GROUP'S "THE DANCERS WALTZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.