Knight Foundation releases unprecedented survey of 12,000 non-voters, examining their political attitudes and behavior, including how they encounter information about politics and elections
WASHINGTON — February 19, 2020 — As primary season heats up and voters cast their ballots during this presidential election year, the largest bloc of the electorate is a group of Americans that no politician has polled and who have seldom exercised their basic civic act – those who chronically do not vote. In an effort to better understand citizens who don’t vote and the challenges of political engagement, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation today released a landmark study that looks at the 100 million Americans who are eligible to vote but don’t.
The first of its kind, the study, “The 100 Million Project: The Untold Story of American Non-Voters,” examines 12,000 people who chronically do not vote – those who are not registered to vote or voted only once in the last six national elections. The study examined non-voters throughout the country and across the political spectrum, at every level of education and income, and from every walk of life in terms of age, race, gender and religious affiliation, with separate samples in key battleground states. For comparative purposes, 1,000 active voters and 1,000 18- to 24-year-old eligible citizens were also surveyed.
The study busts commonly held myths about non-voters and provides insights on why they don’t vote, their positions on platform issues and President Trump, and how they engage with news and politics. The findings reveal important insights on non-voters and factors behind their disengagement:
- Non-voters have less faith in the electoral system than voters. Non-voters say they don’t vote for many reasons, including not liking the candidates and feeling their vote doesn’t matter. Compared with voters, they have less faith in the electoral system, don’t feel they have enough information, and are less likely to think increased participation in elections is good for the country. They are more likely to think “the system is rigged.”
- Splitting the vote in 2020. If non-voters all turned out in 2020, non-voter candidate preferences show they would add nearly equal share to Democratic and Republican candidates (33 percent versus 30 percent, respectively), while 18 percent said they would vote for a third party.
- Evenly divided on Trump. They are more evenly divided on current political issues and President Trump than previously thought. Fifty-one percent have a negative opinion of Trump, versus 40 percent positive. While non-voters skew center-left on some key issues like health care, they are slightly more conservative than active voters on immigration and abortion.
- Non-voters are less engaged with news and information. They consume less news, are more likely to accidentally “bump into” news rather than seeking it out actively, and more likely to say they don’t feel informed enough to decide who to vote for.
- Eligible Gen Z voters say they are less interested in politics and 2020 election than non-voters. Americans aged 18 to 24 are less interested in politics and less informed. They are the age cohort least likely to say they will vote in 2020, and 38 percent say they don’t have enough information to decide who to vote for.
“One hundred million Americans persistently sit out a central democratic act. We shouldn’t judge them; we should understand them,” said Sam Gill, senior vice president and chief program officer at Knight Foundation. “This study brings us face to face — for the first time — with those who feel disconnected from our political process. If we care about the future of our democracy, we have an obligation to better understand our friends, neighbors and family members who choose to sit out elections.”
This national survey was conducted from July to August 2019. A representative sample of both registered and unregistered non-voters (4,000 total) was drawn and voting history verified using voter file data. A separate sample of 800 swing state non-voters — 8,000 total in each of 10 battleground states — was surveyed in Wisconsin, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Minnesota, Michigan, Georgia, Florida and Arizona.
Surveys and focus groups were conducted by the political polling firm Bendixen Amandi in collaboration with political scientists Yanna Krupnikov from Stony Brook University and Eitan Hersh from Tufts University. It is the largest survey of non-voters that has been conducted and provides the only reliable national dataset about non-voter political views, top issues and challenges with voting.
The study defines “non-voters” as those who have participated in one or fewer of the past six national elections, meaning they have voted a maximum of only once in the past 12 years. It found that non-voters are less educated, poorer, and more likely to be minorities, single and women. Sixty-two percent do not have a college degree, and 20 to 25 percent make less than $50,000 annually. Sixty-five percent are white – versus 15 percent Hispanic and 13 percent black – and 53 percent are women.
“Non-voters are split down the middle, adding nearly equal shares to both the Democrats and Republicans. This sets up a scenario for 2020 in which the side that’s more effective at getting out the vote – and crucially turning out new voters – is likely to have the advantage in November,” Hersh said. “There are constituencies on both sides waiting to be activated.”
To be connected with the report’s authors and spokespeople from Knight Foundation to discuss this report and the issue of non-voters more broadly, please contact Tony Franquiz at 202-374-5393 or [email protected].
About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit kf.org.
Tony Franquiz, [email protected], 202-374-5393
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation published this piece as part of the 100 Million project. The Foundation does not endorse any political party or candidate. It supports all efforts to educate non-voting Americans about the issues facing their communities and the nation and exercise the right to vote for candidates and initiatives of their choice.