Why Do Some People Not Vote In Elections? : The NPR Politics Podcast For the eighty million Americans who didn't vote in November, government can feel distant. Non-voters tend to believe that things will go on just as they did before regardless of an election's outcome.

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

This episode: congressional correspondent Susan Davis, demographics and culture reporter Juana Summers, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

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Why People Don't Vote

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Why People Don't Vote

Why People Don't Vote

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ANN: Hi, this is Ann (ph), calling from the inside of my car in Brooklyn, N.Y., where I am waiting for the street sweeper to go by. And I am looking forward to a vaccine so that I can return to being one of those New Yorkers who relies solely on public transportation. This podcast was recorded at...


2:05 p.m. on Wednesday, December 16.

ANN: ...Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but hopefully I will have found a parking spot by then.


DAVIS: That is a whole aspect of New York life that sounds exhausting - how people have to constantly move their cars to deal with street cleaning vans.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I do not miss New York parking.


DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: I'm Juana Summers. I cover demographics and culture.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

DAVIS: So Congress is finalizing what looks like to be a $900 billion relief deal. It's not supposed to include some money to help state and local governments or liability protections, but it does appear that it will have some sort of direct payments. The No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Thune, said they expect it could be around $600 a person, and it would extend extra unemployment benefits through March. We'll, of course, have more to talk about on the podcast when the deal is finalized. But today on the POLITICS PODCAST, we're going to talk about the people who pay no attention to politics. We're going to talk about the people who chose not to vote in 2020. Domenico, before we get into the people who didn't vote, remind us who did.

MONTANARO: Well, a lot of people voted. You know, this year was the highest rate of voting that we've seen in 120 years. Sixty-seven percent of eligible voters cast ballots. But that does mean that a third of eligible voters did not, and that's almost 80 million people who stayed home.

DAVIS: That's just, like, a staggering number of people.

MONTANARO: It is. It's a surprising number to think about, you know, when you try to add them all up and you realize, you know, it's a big country. And, you know, we talk about all these people who went out to the polls, but there are a lot of people who are just separated from the system and just aren't interested.

DAVIS: So what does this pool of 80 million people look like?

MONTANARO: Well, we went and surveyed them with the Medill School of Journalism and Ipsos, which conducted the poll. And, you know, we talked to about 1,100 of these nonvoters. And a lot of their reasons for not voting were things like not being registered to vote. Seventy percent of nonvoters are not registered, so that was the top reason. They're not interested in politics - a quarter of them. They didn't like the candidates. They don't feel like their vote would make a difference. And frankly, they, you know, were undecided on these candidates. But, you know, they just didn't really - they weren't engaged. They didn't pay much attention to this presidential campaign for as much money as was spent overall in this election - about $7 billion on the presidential campaign. Only 38% of nonvoters said that they followed the news of the presidential election somewhat closely, compared to almost 8 in 10 people who voted.

DAVIS: So who was included in the poll? Who did the pollsters talk to?

MONTANARO: Well, we looked at voters and we looked at nonvoters. And when we looked at the kinds of people who were nonvoters who we're most interested in sort of getting at, two things really jumped out. One is that this group of people are younger than voters and, frankly, more Latino. You saw 35% of people who are nonvoters in this sample were between the ages of 18 and 34 and a quarter were Latino.

DAVIS: Well, are we surprised by this? I mean, you have been reporting for the bulk of the 2020 election cycle about Latino groups screaming from the rooftops that politicians are not paying enough attention to Latino voters.

SUMMERS: Yeah, you're right, Sue. And it hasn't just been this year. I remember having these conversations with leaders of Latino groups even as far back as the 2016 and 2012 campaign. They made the point consistently that Latinos in this country are a growing population, to Domenico's point. They're also a very young population. But they raise concerns repeatedly that people just, frankly, aren't reaching out to Latinos in this country.

I'm thinking back to a conversation that I had some time ago with Clarissa Martinez-de-Castro, who is one of the senior leaders of the group, Unidos. And she told me that they did a post-election survey where they found that roughly two-thirds of Latinos in that survey had heard nothing from campaigns, political parties or community organizations. Their voters just aren't getting registered because no one is asking them and no one is inviting them into this process. And so therein lies the problem and perhaps one of the reasons why you see the findings that we see in the survey.

MONTANARO: That's roughly what we found in the survey, too. I mean, only a quarter of nonvoters said that they've had any contact with a campaign compared to half of people who voted. And that's because these campaigns have pretty sophisticated data programs. They know who high propensity voters are. And it's a lot of money to try and, you know, register people who are outside the system and who don't have an interest in voting.

And I do think the pandemic wound up hurting Democrats when it came to trying to register Latinos. Because they do make a big effort, especially in places like south Texas, and, you know, Joe Biden underperformed in south Texas and south Florida. And part of that, you know, the campaign feels like had to do with the pandemic - the inability to go and door knock. Because, look, Latinos surveyed were overall registered in far lower numbers than whites and Black Americans. Only 52% of Latinos overall were registered to vote. Three-quarters of Latino nonvoters are registered to vote.

DAVIS: There's a complicated thing about this poll that I think you two are uniquely good at maybe dissecting for me. And that has to do with one of the things that these voters said - and Latino voters were a big pool of it - is that they didn't feel any problems voting. They didn't think it was hard to vote. But then how do we square this with what we know is voter suppression, that there is a lot of efforts in this country to make sure people, certainly people of color in a lot of places, don't vote?

SUMMERS: Yeah, I think that's a great point, and I'm glad you raised it. Because it is impossible to disentangle a poll, which is, of course, a snapshot in time, from the fact that we know that, as historians have said, there is a long history of voter suppression - both intentional and, frankly, unintentional - in this country that impacts particularly young people, poor people and people of color who say that they have experienced systemic barriers to voting. I remember talking to people this year, even in the midst of this pandemic, which has been so deadly for so many Americans in the state of Georgia, who said they felt they must show up in person for November's general election because they were worried that they would not have equitable access to this franchise. So while the three-quarters of the people in the survey, you know, did say that it was at least somewhat easy to vote. We know that for a wide swath of Americans, some who participated and some who perhaps did not, do not feel that way.

MONTANARO: To Juana's point, below the number there with the three-quarters who said that it was somewhat easy to vote, when you asked African Americans and Hispanics whether they thought it was very easy to vote, they said so in much lower numbers than whites and in much lower numbers than people who voted.

DAVIS: All right. Well, let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk more about voter engagement.


DAVIS: And we're back. And Juana, as you talked about, you've spent a lot of time talking to these groups who are trying to do more for Latino outreach. What do they tell you is needed to sort of tap into this pool of voters that is disengaged from the system?

SUMMERS: Yeah. So if we're talking about Latino voters specifically, the biggest thing I hear is that the outreach cannot come in the final six weeks before the election. This is one thing that a number of Latino organizers and activists were particularly critical, as Domenico noted, of the Biden team for. The Biden team strategy during the primary was largely focused on Black voters who clearly were a huge part of the constituency that he put together to win the Democratic nomination and then again in the general election. But their strategy to win over Latino voters, it started later. And I've been told repeatedly that, you know, that's a failure. This is a large group. It is a young group who are rapidly aging into being a voting age because of the youth of that population.

And we know that voting is habitual. We know that once you vote, you often vote again. So talking to these young folks, repeatedly, talking to them about their issues, mind you, not just immigration, is critical for getting them not just to enter the system and to vote the first time, but to see voting as something they have to do again and again and again so that they tell their friends or so that they tell their parents, if they are eligible to vote, to go out and do so.

DAVIS: So why don't politicians have a better Latino outreach model when it's been so clear for so long that what they're doing is not working?

SUMMERS: Yeah, that's such a great question. And when I talk to experts about this, there are a couple of big things they point to. One of them is the fact that, frankly, these politicians need to hire more Latino firms and vendors to work on their ads and work on their outreach so that they're having these internal community conversations and not just doing things like, for example, taking the same job that they'd run in English and then just flipping the language and running it again in Spanish. They want the conversations to be authentic. They want them to touch on the priorities that these communities actually have and not just be an immigration pitch because it's a Latino community. They want to make sure that they're meeting these voters, like any voter, really, where they're at as opposed to just assuming what they believe and what matters to them.

MONTANARO: Yeah, and it's a high bar. Because when we asked them, what do you think would most encourage you to vote, the top answer was nothing. More than a third of nonvoters said nothing could get them to vote. That was followed by things like cleaning up government, having more candidates to choose from, being automatically registered to vote and making Election Day a national holiday. And that was just said by 15% of nonvoters, which I think comes as a big surprise to people who voted because we asked the same question of voters and 42% of them said making Election Day a national holiday would increase voting. So there is a disconnect between what voters think would make nonvoters vote and what nonvoters are saying that they feel like they're just outside the system and it's not working for them.

DAVIS: But, Domenico, won't some of these nonvoters sort of age into becoming voters? I mean, a lot of people don't vote when they're younger, but they do when they get married or after they graduate college. I mean, lifestyle factors seem to also have an impact here.

MONTANARO: I think that's true to a degree. You know, if people wind up getting, you know, degrees, if people wind up with jobs and families, a lot of times that does increase the likelihood that somebody will vote. But there is the potential here for a lot of people to be lost in the cracks where they, you know, perpetually are outside the system because they're not able to get a higher education, which leads to not being able to get a better job, which leads to them feeling like they're left behind and the system is rigged.

DAVIS: Yeah, like economic enfranchisement is sort of the key to becoming an active civil participant.


DAVIS: Well, I do wonder, I think about places that maybe it did work better than others in the country in 2020. And I think about Georgia, where we see that, you know, turnout by younger voters and younger Black and Latino voters did make a difference in that state. And I wonder if there's places that other states or groups are looking to as success stories. What were - were there some models out there that said, hey, that worked, let's do more of that everywhere?

SUMMERS: Yeah, I think Georgia is a big one. I think people have been particularly proud of the results in places like Minnesota as well in terms of the turnout that you saw. The thing that I keep coming back to is the fact that, as we all know, this is an election that looked so different than any election we have ever seen in history. And one of the reasons why it looks different is because, frankly, people in a lot of places had more options of when to vote and how to vote. Vote by mail was expanded. Early voting was expanded. And one thing we know is that once you give people rights, it's really hard to take them back. So I wonder if we see another presidential election in four years where people who are not in a pandemic have this expanded menu of options of how to participate, which I think is a big part of what led to the record turnout that we saw this year.

DAVIS: Yeah. And I would think not just record turnout, but, you know, despite the accusations that President Trump has said, this historic turnout year also worked pretty smoothly, that there wasn't problems with voter fraud or lost ballots or questioning election outcomes. On the whole, the elections were pretty successful with those new models of voting.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And the ability to, you know, vote by mail - expand that pretty widely - also cut down on the length of time for people who did want to vote in person on Election Day. So I think Juana's completely right that it's going to be really hard to take away some of these things in elections going forward. And that's going to be a voting thing to watch - these processes and how many of these states that did it temporarily actually make them permanent.

DAVIS: OK. Well, I think that's it for today. But remember, you can sign up for a roundup of our best online analysis at npr.org/politicsnewsletter.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

SUMMERS: I'm Juana Summers. I cover demographics and culture.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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