PHILADELPHIA _ Patricia Robinson registered to vote when she was 18.
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 like 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.
• About 55% of nonvoters nationally say they are certain they will vote this time, though that remains to be seen.
Why people don’t vote
No politician could convince 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.”
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 co-workers were going.
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.
What if they 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.