Patricia Robinson registered to vote soon after she turned 21.
At 79, she still hasn’t seen anybody worth voting for.
“I don’t vote because I haven’t seen anybody that doesn’t have their hand into something,” she said. “They’re all a bunch of crooks.”
Robinson, a retired hospital worker in Erie, is one of 100 million people who sit out election after election, according to a new study. Nonvoters have a number of reasons for not participating. But in general they tend to dislike politicians and political parties, distrust the electoral system to accurately count votes and the political system to fairly represent people, and disengage from news in favor of entertainment.
Like Robinson, most of them could cast ballots — relatively few say systemic electoral barriers are primary obstacles. But they feel uninformed, uninterested, and simply don’t feel their votes count, according to the study of nonvoters by the Knight Foundation.
The study paints a complex picture of a massive potential voting bloc:
People of color make up a greater share of nonvoters than active voters, and nonvoters tend to be less educated, poorer, and younger.
Nonvoters tend to passively encounter news, rather than actively seek it out.
People who don’t vote are less partisan and about equally split on key issues and on support for or opposition to President Donald Trump.
Nationally, nonvoters would add about equal numbers to Democrats or to Republicans. But there are key differences across swing states, and nonvoters in Pennsylvania tend to lean toward supporting Trump.
While a small majority of nonvoters, about 57%, say the 2020 election is more important than previous elections in their lifetimes, that’s significantly lower than the 73% of active voters who say the same.
About 55% of nonvoters nationally say they are certain they will vote this time, though that remains to be seen.
The Knight Foundation’s “100 Million Project,” released Wednesday, defined nonvoters as people who aren’t registered to vote or who, despite being registered, voted in no more than one national election in the last 10 years. Researchers surveyed 4,002 nonvoters nationwide and also polled 1,002 active voters who participated in three or more elections in that time.
Nonvoters say that most people they know vote and that casting a ballot is easy. It’s a group that could easily swing an election — and upend the political landscape, turning battlegrounds into solidly safe Republican or Democratic states, and vice versa.
In Pennsylvania, the survey found, about 35% of nonvoters would vote for Trump in November, while 27% would support the Democratic nominee.
Why people don’t vote
No politician could persuade Robinson to vote, she said: “They haven’t done anything for anybody but themselves.”
Robinson rattled off the ways politicians have disappointed her over the years, like a fire chief charged with embezzlement and a council president indicted on fraud and theft for stealing from a nonprofit.
Disliking candidates was the No. 1 reason people gave for not voting, followed by assuming their vote wouldn’t make a difference.
But those answers may mask the depth of nonvoters’ feelings of disaffection, said Yanna Krupnikov, a political science professor at Stony Brook University and adviser on the survey. When many people say no candidates appeal to them, she said, that’s a proxy for “I don’t really feel part of this.”
“People have a hard time explaining just how disengaged they are,” Krupnikov said. “It’s really hard to explain why we don’t like something or want to do something, especially if it’s something we believe we’re supposed to be doing.”
Getting people to vote
One thing that does increase turnout: social pressure.
That’s how Robinson actually did end up voting in one presidential election. She can’t remember what year it was, and whether it was for George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, but she remembers she went out to the polls that day because a bunch of her coworkers were going.
Some groups have begun putting that research into practice through a variety of mailers and apps that tell nonvoters they’re surrounded by voters, or even threaten to publicly shame them by publicizing that they don’t vote.
What doesn’t seem to be the major problem, though, is election law and rules. Like other surveys, the Knight Foundation study found that systemic barriers rank lowest among the reasons for not voting, and expanding access to the ballot through more flexible options would only affect a relatively small number of nonvoters.
In battleground states such as Pennsylvania, where razor-thin margins lead campaigns to fight for every possible vote, some candidates have tried in the past to mobilize nonvoters. But converting them into political participants requires a heavy investment.
“If you are looking to really make a difference in a close race you have to talk to the people who are most likely to turn out, and you’ve got to talk to them at the doors," said Trevor Maloney, a Democratic political strategist who ran Jamie Gauthier’s successful 2019 race to unseat a longtime member of Philadelphia City Council and a slate of winning campaigns in Delaware County last year.
State Rep. John Hershey knocked on 8,000 doors in Juniata County as a Republican candidate in 2018, boosting turnout significantly beyond what it was in the rest of the state. He didn’t have the data to be strategic about it, so he ended up knocking on doors regardless of voter history.
With voters, he said, he tended to discuss policy and why they should support him. With nonvoters, he had to convince them that their vote mattered at all. The latter conversations took significantly longer, with some of them lasting an hour.
For Our Future, a progressive political action committee founded by labor organizations and Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, is focusing on nonvoters in Pennsylvania and other swing states. The organization sends canvassers from the community to knock on doors of nonvoters in the hopes of gaining their interest and trust months before Election Day. Canvassers don’t pitch a particular candidate, but ask residents what issues they care about and if they’d be willing to get more information.
What would happen if nonvoters showed up?
Nonvoters could swing elections.
And because they differ demographically, socially, and politically from voters, they could significantly shift policy: Elected officials tend to focus on voters, especially their voters, more than on their constituents generally.
Nonvoters in swing states said they do want a say in major decisions, and a majority of them said they plan to vote in November.
While their histories suggest that’s unlikely, nonvoters say the thing that would pull them into the voting booth is someone worth voting for.
And there’s evidence that certain candidates — like Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016 — successfully appealed to otherwise disengaged people.
Mark Aylor, a 48-year-old pipe fitter from Alabama who took the survey, said he’s never voted despite being registered for two decades. Aylor said he’ll vote for Trump, whom he followed less closely in 2016.
“I’ve never seen someone worth voting for,” he said. “And this time I do.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when Patricia Robinson registered to vote. At the time, the minimum eligible voting age was still 21.