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Why Do Some U.S. Voters Not Vote in Presidential Elections?

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Statistics suggest voter participation in the United States is dropping and there is much discussion surrounding ways to increase and encourage people to vote. Some suggest slightly more than 50 percent of voters go to the polls in presidential election years (and non-presidential years are substantially lower).

Despite much advertising and media coverage of upcoming elections - you figure the presidential election season almost seems to start about mid-way through any given administration - a large segment of the population decide not to vote.

Why is voter turnout in the United States so low? Even during presidential election years?

A Look Back at 2012

The 2012 presidential election was a very tight race for most of the election season. Polls taken during the final several months of that year’s campaign run often quoted President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney as being in a "dead heat".

Voters across the United States actively followed the candidates, and many had long decided where they'd be casting their vote, while others voters were undecided until the last-minute. Still other people had decided to sit the 2012 election out and not vote for either the Republican or Democratic political parties.

Why would a group of people refuse to exercise their right to vote and choose either Barack Obama, Mitt Romney or a third-party candidate? There are a few reasons why many people refused to vote and, while the reasons were different, most of them likely were rooted in frustration over U.S. politics.

Who voted?
Credit: Robert Palmer via Flickr/CC by 2.0/https://www.flickr.com/photos/robertpalmer/2982655256

A Lot of Apathy...

For the last several administrations, spending has increased and civil liberties are chipped away and eroded. Over the years candidates have made all sorts of promises to their constituents, but how often do they truly follow through? Or play out the way it had been presented during campaign speeches? Not often.

People not only remember this, but after feeling betrayed by their elected leaders, a level of apathy emerges. Bottom line, people stop caring. They feel their vote won’t matter; if they vote, the outcome will be the same either way. In other words, nothing changes.

... And Tired of the ‘Same Old’

Many voters are independent-minded and do not align with either the Republicans or the Democrats. They would probably be more likely vote if a feasible third-party candidate were to emerge, because people in this subset of voters may view Democrats and Republicans as one and the same, all tied to corporations and political agendas furthering their interests rather than what is best for the people. This is one of the reasons why so many were attracted to Ross Perot and Ralph Nader in years past or, despite their "R" and "D" party affiliations, even Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders this year.

Despite common belief there are only two parties to choose from, there are third-party candidates, but these contenders typically are shut out of national debates and the media largely ignores their platforms and voices. Independent voters who feel their vote for a third-party candidate won't have an impact may simply decide to stay home and skip casting a vote.

Ballot/elections
Credit: Felipe Blasco via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain https://pixabay.com/en/elections-democracy-urn-1496436/

Don’t Want to Choose Between the Lesser of Two Evils

Those voters who do not believe a third-party will ever garner enough strength to make a difference may refuse to vote what they see as the "lesser of two evils". Even Democrats and Republicans who feel their respective parties did not, once again, come up with good candidates may decide to sit an election race out rather than vote "against" one candidate and not "for" the other.

Boycott 

In 2012, many people believed that neither primary candidate would best serve the needs of the U.S. people. As a result, they called for a boycott of the presidential race only, encouraging voters to participate in local elections.  Many voters may have decided to join this type of initiative, frustrated with the deficiencies of the electoral vote system, a perception that many widely feel a change is needed in the election process. This is often attributed to a general dissatisfaction that corporations have too much control in elections, and a feeling that "participation in this process lends legitimacy to a system that has lost its legitimacy." (This was in a 2011-12 Facebook event post that is no longer online. However, a copy of this text still exists on the web). [1]

U.S. Capitol
Credit: Leigh Goessl

While a large percentage of people don't go to the polls to vote during presidential election years, even more don't go during mid-term elections.

Then there are those that simply believe they are exercising a right not to vote and have their own reasons for sitting out any given year’s presidential election. Overall, according to a New York Times piece dated Aug. 1, 2016, 88 million people do not vote at all. This figure was based on the “share of eligible adults who voted in the 2012 election.” [2]

What about 2016?

It will be interesting to see the level of voter participation when November 2016 rolls around. Due to the high unpopularity of both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald J. Trump, will more or less people come to the polls than they did in 2012?  Many see both as equally “bad”.

With both the Democrats and Republicans each having an unpopular candidate, will a large percentage of people choose to sit out this year as well?  Or will people rush to the polls to "vote against the other one" (back to the lesser of two evils thing)?

Donald J. Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton
Credit: Accessed via Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_and_Hillary_Clinton_during_United_States_presidential_election_2016.jpg

Lesser of two evils? If polls and statistics are any indicator, both of 2016's party picks are unpopular choices.

While Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson had gained some steam in September 2016, much like independent candidates in previous years, it’s unlikely he’ll gain enough to outrun the “duopoly” Republicans and Democrats. According to current news, he will not be eligible to take part in the presidential debates. The only reason why people may have even heard of his campaign this year was because of his “What is Aleppo?” and “Nobody got hurt” statements. The latter referred to the September 2016 bombing in New York City where 29 people were hurt and the stabbings in Minnesota where nine were injured. Johnson later tweeted out in a response to a New York Times reporter clarifying he meant to say “Nobody was killed” and his campaign also issued a statement that he misspoke. [3],[4]  However, other than that, how often has his name been mentioned in mainstream media? Trump and Clinton have certainly made their share of gaffes, however, anything ill-timed is balanced or glossed over due to heavy media coverage of both candidates and their party affliliations.

The media tends to largely ignore third-party candidates. While there is a growing movement to support third-party candidates, it is likely the United States is a long way from having this type of voting option. The "big two" and those supporting them have too much invested. Many will say that third parties are "spoilers", but when you figure a very small percentage (the New York Times works this out to be about 9 percent in its analysis [2]) of eligible U.S. voters actually chose Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald J. Trump as the 2016 candidates, what was there really to spoil?  You figure many Republicans had a a number of other candidates to choose from and Bernie Sanders made quite a splash in the Democrat party.

I originally wrote this piece in November 2012 (and updated it to reflect current events), but I think many of these reasons still apply to 2016. What do you think? Why is voter turnout in the United States consistently on the decline?

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Bibliography

  1. "Should Progressives Boycott The Presidential Elections?." Political Context. 22/11/2011. 21/09/2016 <Web >
  2. "Only 9% of America Chose Trump and Clinton as the Nominees." New York Times. 1/08/2016. 21/09/2016 <Web >
  3. "Another Slip for the Libertarian Nominee, Gary Johnson: ‘Nobody Got Hurt’." New York Times. 21/09/2016 <Web >
  4. "Twitter post." Twitter. 18/09/2016. 21/09/2016 <Web >
  5. "Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections: 1828 - 2012." The American Presidency Project. 26/09/2016 <Web >

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