‘I don’t plan to vote ever again’: The psychology of why so many people don't vote, even in 2020

Voters in Virginia's 7th district wait in line to vote at the Henrico County Registrar’s office September 18, 2020 in Henrico, Virginia.
Win McNamee | Getty Images

"I don't plan to vote ever again…and none of my family members are voting this year," says a 36-year-old resident of Georgia, who says she is not a party-line voter and shared her thoughts with CNBC Make It on condition of anonymity due to a fear of backlash. "We don't care who wins the election," because no elected politicians have helped during "these hard, dark times," she says.

"I don't feel represented by the candidates the parties in power keep offering up," says Norman, a self-described conservative millennial, writing for the online publication The Doe, which shares "anonymous narratives to promote civil discourse." "[A]nd I won't vote for a 'lesser evil,'" he says.

Deciding not to vote is not an uncommon stance in America. In recent decades, the number of eligible people who vote for president has hovered between 50% and 60%, according to Michael P. McDonald, a professor in the department of political science at the University of Florida. And non-voters can affect outcomes. In 2016, when President Donald Trump defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the run for the White House, almost 100 million Americans did not cast a vote for president — more than the number of votes any individual candidate received.

Even in a race as fraught and divided as 2020, one where tens of millions of people have voted early and for which voter turnout could break records (including among young people), there will still likely be millions of people who opt not to vote.

Generally, people who choose not to vote fall into "several camps," says Leonie Huddy, a professor and the chair of the department of political science at Stony Brook University and an expert in the psychology of elections. Here's a look at the psychology of those who choose not to vote.

Less trusting people vote less

One set of non-voters are the chronically skeptical, says Christopher Federico, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, who has conducted research on political psychology and belief systems.

"People who are less trusting of their fellow citizens and who are less trusting of government officials to do the right thing are less likely to vote," he says. "If you believe that your fellow compatriots and government officials are all out for themselves and cannot be trusted to behave in a moral fashion, then voting is likely to be seen as useless."

There are potentially more people who don't trust the system this year than in others, too, according to Huddy.

"Voters who follow the news but think the electoral system is rigged or that voting doesn't matter and fail to show up for that reason," as a group, "may be slightly larger in 2020 because of pervasive misinformation about voter fraud," Huddy says.

Some stand on principle

According to Huddy, another group of non-voters are people who "don't like the candidates," like The Doe's Norman.

"Until and unless there is a candidate who I feel I could vote for in good conscience, I'm not voting," Norman wrote. "Voting legitimizes the government structure we have in place and demands that the voter accept the outcome, whether they like who wins the Oval Office or not. My non-vote says presidential candidates and government officials aren't quite up to snuff. Do better. Be better. And if someone better steps up to the plate, I'll be first in line to cast my ballot," he says.

This can be considered "principled abstention," says Federico.

Politics isn't their thing

Still other people choose not to vote because news and politics is not of interest to them.

"Some people find politics conflictual, difficult to understand, or are preoccupied with other aspects of their lives," says Huddy.

Young people often fall into this category, says Huddy, because they "follow news less closely and are more likely than older Americans to get their news from social media. They do not feel especially well-informed about political candidates and think that the act of voting is more difficult than do older Americans."

For some, political affiliation or interest is not part of their self expression, says Federico.

When measuring someone's propensity to vote, it "matters whether a person is interested in politics or sees politics as something central to their sense of self," he says.

There are "lots of things we can care more or less about: music, baseball, abstract art, and so on," Federico says. "Some people care about politics this way, and tend to care what's going on in the political world even if an election isn't coming up. Others do not. All other things being equal, people who are less interested in politics — or who do not see their political beliefs as central to their identity — are less likely to vote."

Extroverts are more likely to vote

Extroverts and people who are more open to new experiences are more likely to vote, Federico says, and conversely, people who are "relatively close-minded and don't like new things" and those "who are less outgoing and assertive" are less likely to vote.

Not voting can be seen as a callousness

While there can be a lot that goes into a person's decision to vote or not, the fact that millions of people vote at all is a wonder, says Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor in  New York University's Department of Psychology, whose research focuses on things like moral values and political beliefs affect the brain and behavior.

"In many ways, it's remarkable that people will stand in line for hours to do something that might have little impact on their personal lives. Economists have argued that voting is irrational because one vote almost never swings an election," Van Bavel says.

The collective willingness to participate in democracy is on some level, an act of selflessness, he says.

"There is some evidence that people vote for altruistic reasons — so it's not a stretch to argue that a failure to vote is callous, assuming that person has easy access to voting and is not suffering from vote suppression," Van Bavel says. 

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