Who's not voting in America?

Who's not voting in America?
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While much has been said recently about voting rights, restrictions, legislation, fraud and court decisions, comparatively little has been mentioned about the many men and women not voting in America.

The 2020 U.S. presidential election had a record turnout, with about 158 million Americans casting a ballot, 81 million for Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries FDA aims to give full approval to Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day: report Overnight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response MORE and 74 million for Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Missouri Rep. Billy Long enters Senate GOP primary Trump-backed Mike Carey wins GOP primary in Ohio special election MORE

However, one-third of eligible voters, approximately 77 million Americans, did not vote in the November presidential election.

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The proportion not voting in 2020 varied across the U.S. states. The highest percentages of Americans not voting were generally observed among the Southern states, including Oklahoma (45 percent), Arkansas (44 percent), West Virginia (43 percent) and Tennessee (40 percent). The lowest proportions not voting were in Minnesota (20 percent) and Colorado and Maine (both at slightly less than 24 percent). 

Men had a slightly higher proportion not voting than women in the 2020 election, 35 and 32 percent, respectively. The proportions of eligible U.S. voters not voting among the country’s major social groups varied considerably. Hispanics had the highest level not voting in the recent election at 46 percent, followed by Asians at (41 percent), Blacks (37 percent), and whites (29 percent). 

The percentages not voting in the November election also varied by age, as has been the general trend in previous elections. Younger Americans aged 18 to 34 years had the highest level of not voting at 43 percent. They were followed by those aged 35 to 64 years at 31 percent, with the elderly aged 65 and over having the lowest level of not voting at 26 percent.  

Also, those not voting tended to have lower levels of education and income were more likely to be unmarried and less likely to be homeowners. The percentage earning $50,000 a year or less, for example, was twice as high among nonvoters than voters, 43 and 21 percent, respectively. 

Although one-third of eligible American voters did not cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election, it was the lowest level of not voting in a presidential election in more than a hundred years. Since the start of the 20th century, the highest proportions of eligible voters not voting in a U.S. presidential election, around 51 percent, were in 1920 and 1924, which was when American women gained suffrage.

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In contrast, the lowest proportions of Americans not voting in a U.S. presidential election occurred during the nation’s turbulent times in the second half of the 19th century. In the 1876 and 1860 presidential elections, the proportions of eligible voters not casting a ballot were record lows for the country, approximately 17 and 18 percent, respectively. 

The U.S. level of not voting in elections is higher than those of many OECD countries. For example, low percentages of the eligible populations not voting in recent elections where voting is not compulsory include Sweden (13 percent), Denmark (17 percent), South Korea (20 percent), and the Netherlands (21 percent). However, some countries have substantially higher levels of non-voting in recent elections than the U.S., including Switzerland 61 percent, Mexico and Poland both 51 percent, and Japan 47 percent. 

The major reason why 77 million Americans didn’t cast ballots in the 2020 presidential election was that they were not registered to vote. Approximately 27 percent of all Americans aged 18 years or older, numbering 63 million men and women, had not registered to vote. Those 63 million unregistered U.S. citizens account for 82 percent of those who did not vote in the 2020 presidential election. The U.S. is one of the few countries that requires citizens to register for voting separately from the actual voting.

Other reasons offered by those who did not vote or failed to register to vote in the election included not being interested due to voter apathyalienation, skepticism and voter fatigue, purged voter rolls, strict ID laws, and is a hassle. Some non-voters also believed that their vote would not make a difference on the election’s outcome or the country’s policies, they did not like any of the candidates or were undecided on whom to vote. 

Having difficulty voting, however, did not appear to play a significant role in not voting. In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic was not reported to be an important factor preventing people from registering or voting.  

As it has been throughout the country’s 245-year history, voting rights remain a major divisive issue in America. Who votes, how they vote, under what circumstances and the fairness and legitimacy of elections are among the critical questions relating to voting rights that political leaders in Congress continue to negotiate.  

Congressional discussions are currently underway as growing numbers of states are introducing bills or have already passed measures that impact voting. Among those measures are the issues of mail voting, early voting, voter registration, voter identification, assistance to voters, disenfranchisement, mail ballot drop boxes, donor contributions to operational budgets and oversight for free and fair elections. 

The outcomes of the Congressional discussions, which appear to be faltering, and their consequences on the voting rights in the years ahead remain unclear. However, several things seem evident at this time. 

First, voting rights will remain a highly controversial partisan issue dividing the country’s political leadership well into the future. The major parties in Congress differ considerably regarding the federal government’s role in voting throughout the country.

Second, voting in U.S. elections will continue to be deemed one of the most significant things that citizens can do to participate in their country’s democracy. No matter the political perspective, voting is widely considered fundamental to ensuring America’s way of life.

And third, despite voting’s centrality to the nation, for the foreseeable future, relatively high proportions of eligible U.S. voters, perhaps a third to half, will likely not vote. Those levels of not voting in elections remain among the many troubling signs for America’s democracy in the 21st century. 

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."