The 100 Million Project
Photo credit: Knight Foundation (PDF)

Protecting Out Vote 2020

If voter turnout is indicative of a democracy’s health, then the US is clearly ailing. Only slightly more than half of all eligible voters cast their ballots in presidential elections, which is far below the turnout seen in peer countries. While systematic voter suppression certainly plays a role in this anemic performance, millions of Americans don’t vote because they have lost faith in the system or believe that elections are rigged. 

That is the disturbing finding of “The 100 Million Project: The Untold Story of American Non-Voters,” a recent John S. and James L. Knight Foundation report on research conducted to determine why so few Americans engage in the political process. Other reasons identified in the report include a real or perceived lack of knowledge about the candidates and issues, disappointment in choices, and a belief that their votes do not matter.

In 2016, for example, nearly 100 million eligible voters did not cast a ballot in the general election, with non-voters constituting a larger bloc than the supporters of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. As a result, Americans saw the election of a notably polarizing president who failed to secure a popular mandate. In fact, only a little over a quarter of all eligible voters supported Trump.

Many non-voters “suffer from a lack of faith in our election system,” said the Knight Foundation’s Director of Learning and Impact, Evette Alexander.

Nearly one-third of non-voters said they did not vote in recent elections because they either lacked confidence in the Electoral College or thought elections were rigged. 

According to Trey Grayson, a Republican and former Secretary of State of Kentucky, the reason for that is in part because both Democrats and Republicans are reluctant to abolish the Electoral College.

“At the end of the day, policy makers are elected,” Grayson said, adding that they are unlikely to change the very processes that worked for them before. 

“That’s not the way you’d like them to make policy, but that’s just natural.”

Would More Voter Participation Make a Difference in 2020?

Because the Electoral College plays such a critical role in presidential elections, the Knight Foundation zeroed in on non-voters in 10 of the most competitive states: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Non-voters in these states identify evenly across the political spectrum, but, researchers found, are much less excited than active voters about the November election.

why people don't vote

Photo credit: Erika Smithson / WhoWhatWhy

The report also found that if every eligible non-voter were to cast a ballot in the 2020 election, it would “add an almost equal share of votes to Democratic and Republican candidates.”

“There’s not one party that stands to gain overwhelmingly from everyone participating,” Alexander said.

Although neither Trump nor his presumptive Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, would benefit in general, non-voters could tip the results in particular states. Ironically, the report found that non-voters could boost Trump’s chances of winning a state like Nevada — one of the states Trump lambasted on Twitter Wednesday morning after officials announced the state would conduct an all-mail election.

How partisan are non-voters

Photo credit: Pratyush Painuly / WhoWhatWhy

In part due to the coronavirus, the rules in many voting districts are changing, a process that voters may find suspect or confusing. When the rules for absentee voting change, or when two polling places are consolidated into one, educating voters about such changes is one thing that election officials can do to increase trust and turnout during an election, Grayson said.

“In a pandemic, we need to have those vote-by-mail options,” Grayson said, adding that the election changes this year do not necessarily have to be permanent. They could offer a temporary solution, at least for the upcoming general election, to encourage non-voters to cast a ballot.

Welcoming Young Voters to the Process

The Knight Foundation’s report looks at what it would take to turbocharge the younger vote. Despite that demographic’s historic turnout in the 2018 midterm elections, young voters are more likely than non-voters in general to see the voting process as difficult. They also have less confidence in the outcome of an election. 

One solution is to engage with young people and educate them about civic participation before they turn 18.

Abby Kiesa, Director of Impact for the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning Engagement at Tufts University, sees the challenge differently. “When we talk about [young] non-voters, we’re talking about access issues, not apathy,” said Kiesa. And, young people are the key to addressing non-voting as a whole, she added, because “if you focus on young people, you reach their family.”

International Election Observers Are Already Sounding the Alarm

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Election administrators can also step into this arena, Grayson suggested, to encourage more young voters to participate — whether by becoming poll workers or casting their first ballot — even though the coronavirus has thrown a wrench into the process of recruiting volunteers.

“Part of what we need to understand is that non-voting among youth is not in a vacuum,” Kiesa said, adding that local election administrators have a “real opportunity in this particular year” to work with young people and bring them into the voting process.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Jose Picardo / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).


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robert e williamson jr
robert e williamson jr
1 year ago

Judy, Judy Judy! Oh MY God! Brilliant analysis and observation. Nicely done!

Is it that the conclusion is avoided because clearly large numbers of voters, mostly poor and under educated are alienated by this system of electing top official in the land?

– that their voices are being suppressed by both parties and the electoral college is a sham of gerrymandering big money politicians? See 2016!

At the very least Democrats would be better off doing personal contact research searching for candidates that appeal to those alienated masses, instead of playing big money hardball like the Republicans. This would surely seem to be the case with respect to the last presidential election. The average Democrat at the time was clearly sick of Hillary. One would think that all those geniuses at the DNC would have figured that out by now.

Judy Harrington
Judy Harrington
1 year ago

The article and the study bypass the logical conclusion, which is that voters don’t like the candidates.

Both voters and nonvoters lack confidence in the system. Fine dissection of the reasons why nonvoters lack confidence fails to turn up percentages that deviate substantially from the reasons why voters lack confidence. But voters vote despite their lack of confidence in the system.

Taking the percentage of nonvoters who say they lack confidence, and then documenting the sub-percentages for all the various reasons, gives you a result lower than the biggest reason shown in the initial graph of the study: voters don’t like the candidates who are presented to them. Why avoid the obvious conclusion?

robert e williamson jr
robert e williamson jr
1 year ago

Ms. Black I consider one as bad as the other at this point. But I do agree the Republicans seem to have gone all in to destroy the country.

That said, one can hardly approve of the big money Democrats’ behavior which mirrors big money Republicans more every day.

I say this very clear, “Let me be crystal clear here” (remember that line?) if the 74 year old with the spray tan and the comb-over gets elected again we all are in big trouble. While I loathe Biden he would be more predictable than Trump and IF we could get a democratic controlled Congress the country might have a change to survive but only if the big money Democrats get off their high horse and embrace the youth and the poor. The current national Republican party as it now functions presents a clear and present danger to itself and others. The Democrats desperately need to prove they are different and soon – time is running out .

Susan Anthony
1 year ago

The easiest way to convince people not to vote is to have our current system in which their votes don’t matter.

robert e williamson jr
robert e williamson jr
1 year ago

Ms. Novello, has done little to educate the duly anointed , of whom I consider myself one, about much. I’m willing to bet she has never been drafted into the Army and here she simply states the obvious.

What is not clear is that many who don’t vote are engaged in and consumed by despair. Judging from suicide rates I think I may be onto something. Regardless we all appear to be onboard the same train bound for purgatory. Check those suicide rates Ms. Novello, might be the makings of a great story.

As for Trey Grayson he should know, republicans seem to consistently benefit from the use of the electoral college and I don’t hear Mitch complaining. At least about the electoral college and why would he. The two parties on the other had are not about to fix something that works so great for them, no matter the collateral damage.

Thanks WWW

Norah Black
Norah Black
1 year ago

The Electoral College mainly benefits Republicans, not Democrats. That’s why they don’t want to fix it. Since the 80’s the GOP has done nothing in government but ensure massive destruction that then has to be cleaned up by the Democrats. There is not a single Republican President from Hoover on down that has ever done anything, but destroy & take more and more away from the poor, disadvantaged, minority, elderly, and other disadvantaged people of the US.

robert e williamson jr
robert e williamson jr
1 year ago

I’m 71 years into riding this sh*t train bound for purgatory. I got drafted at the age of 19 , 1968, not qualifying to vote or buy liquor, but I was fit to be trained to kill. I should have known then voting wasn’t all it was chalked up to be, but instead I was mad at the world and I by golly was going to vote now and change things. That was 1971.

I’ll vote again this year, believe me much has changed, and nothing for the better. So I will once again participate in the big fraud, if for no other reason than to prove my point.

The idea of voting created the perception that for various reasons the individual could let his voice be heard. Those romantic voices of change. Bull Feathers!

The two party system is corrupted by big money partisan politics and always has been, it’s worthless and damages our country by the way it functions. We reached the tipping point and have lost our balance and we are on the way to a very bad fall.

My advice to everyone is to hold your nose and vote at least one more time, it may be the last time your are asked to do so. Even if it means you meet the unofficial definition of being insane., “Doing something over and over achieving absolutely nothing by engaging in a process except the hope that next time it will end differently”.

Thanks to WWW

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