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New study on “chronic non-voters” finds many plan to participate in November

An estimated 100 million Americans don’t vote in elections, but a landmark study by the Knight Foundation finds there could be a surprise in store in 2020, in part due to the Trump factor.
19 Feb 2020 – 10:09 AM EST

A surprising 71 per cent of “chronic” non-voters say they plan to cast a ballot in November, potentially reversing a recent trend in low presidential election turnout, but don’t expect a dramatic impact on the result, according to a new first of its kind study by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The study examined 12,000 chronic non-voters, those who are not registered to vote or voted only once in the last six national elections. The ‘100 Million Project’ looked at “the untold story” of 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.

Harbinger of higher turnout?

If accurate, the poll confirms speculation that the 2020 election could reverse the low turnout seen in 2012 and 2016, perhaps matching the high turnout (62 percent) in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected, which was the most in four decades. Turnout fell back to 58.6 percent in 2012 and 60 percent in 2016.

“There is already a sense that election turnout will be higher in 2020 than 2016. This could be the harbinger of what could be the highest turnout in history,” said Fernand Amandi, president of the Miami firm, Bendixen & Amandi International, which conducted the poll.

While it did not provide a clear answer as to why so many say they plan to vote this year, it was partly due to the Trump factor.

A large number, 57 percent said the 2020 election was “more important” than previous elections in their lifetime, while only 30 percent said it was of equal or less importance. Some 41 percent of respondents said Trump was a factor in their decision, with 22 percent motivated by ‘anti-Trump’ feelings and 19 percent declaring it was because they were pro-Trump.

Another 10 percent said it was because the country was in bad shape and 31 percent said they would go to the polls out of a sense of civic responsibility or because it was the morally right thing to do.

When it comes to their choice of candidate, 30 percent said they planned to vote to re-elect Trump, while 33 percent said they planned to vote Democrat. Among Hispanics, only 23 percent said they would be voting for Trump, while 36 percent said they would vote for the Democratic party candidate.

“There’s a common perception that most eligible voters who don’t vote align with the Democratic party. Turns out there’s almost as many Republicans,” said Amandi.

He warned that the poll needed to be treated with caution when it comes to the election in November because most of the field work was done in the summer of 2019. “With that being said, the percentage of those who say they might tip their toe in the water this time is of interest,” he added.

The only message that could be drawn though is that “there is a massive pool of Americans who have opted out of the democratic process but at last the conditions are in place for some of them to assert themselves and opt back into participating in this election.”

The poll found that only 16 percent of habitual non-voters said they would not be casting a ballot. The rest said they hadn’t made up their mind or chose not to answer the question.

Loss of confidence

Only 16 percent said they did not plan to vote, 51 percent said they either didn’t care about politics, they believed the system is corrupt or that their vote didn’t matter and wouldn’t make any difference. “There’s a loss of confidence in the election process and the system,” said Amandi, noting that could in part be due to the fact two elections in the last 20 years where the outcome of the electoral college has not reflected the popular vote. “Before, that only happened once in 240 years,” he said.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost the elections despite winning two million more votes than Trump.

Contrary to popular wisdom, the poll found that non-voters are not all young and Democrat-leaning. In fact, they are evenly divided politically on a range of issues. While non-voters skew center-left on some key issues like health care and gun control, they are slightly more conservative than consistent voters on immigration and abortion,” the poll found.

Support for wall, and gun control

Some 45 percent supported building a border wall and versus 43 percent who opposed the idea. On the other hand, 62 percent of non-voters said they supported tighter gun controls against 27 percent who opposed stricter gun laws.

The survey also found that non-voters are less educated, and poorer. Sixty-two percent have less than a college degree. About 65 percent are white – versus 15 percent Hispanic and 13 percent black, roughly similar to the overall share of the population.

Members of Gen Z are least likely to vote, however. 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.

The study found that non-voters have less faith in the electoral system than voters. Non-voters say they don’t vote because they don’t like the candidates and feel their vote doesn’t matter and are more likely to think “the system is rigged.”

Attention to news

Non-voters are less engaged with news and information. Thirty-eight percent of non-voters are more likely to accidentally “bump into” news, rather than seeking it out actively. Only 24 percent of non-voters said they paid very close attention to the news, compared to 40% of active voters.

Non-voters are less partisan than voters. They were more likely than voters to be undecided or have no opinion on issues such as abortion and immigration. Twenty-eight percent of non-voters identify as independent.

The Knight Foundation says the survey is the largest ever conducted of non-voters and provides the only reliable national dataset about non-voter political views, top issues and challenges with voting.

It was carried out from July to August 2019. The study’s analysis included input from eight different focus groups conducted across four cities, and oversampled in Wisconsin, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Minnesota, Michigan, Georgia, Florida and Arizona. It was conducted by the political polling firm Bendixen Amandi and analysis was led by political scientists Yanna Krupnikov from Stony Brook University and Eitan Hersch from Tufts University.

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