Roughly 43 percent of eligible voters didn’t bother filling out a ballot this year, according to turnout estimates from the U.S. Elections Project. To look at it another way, the people who could have voted but chose not to vastly outnumbered those who cast a vote for Clinton, Trump or a third-party candidate.
The U.S. Elections Project, run by a political scientist at the University of Florida, estimates that there are about 251 million voting-age people in the U.S. But not all of them are eligible to vote: some are non-citizens living in the U.S., while several million more can’t legally vote because they’re in prison, on parole, or have a past felony conviction in states where that’s a barrier to voting.
Subtract all those people and you’ve got about 232 million people potentially eligible to cast a vote this fall. But only about 132 million of them did, give or take the one or two million votes that have yet to be officially certified. That means that 100 million people who have the legal right to vote simply decided it wasn’t worth the hassle this year.
Some of these non-voters may have been discouraged by long lines or policies designed to suppress participation among certain demographic groups, like minority voters. But the research, like a 2014 study from the Government Accountability Office, suggests these policies can at most affect turnout rates by a percentage point or two.
In close elections these small differences matter greatly. But in the context of 100 million people deciding to sit it out, they don’t mean much. We could be generous and say that inadequate access to the vote could account for say, 5 million of those non-participating voters. What excuse, then, do the other 95 million have?
It’s clear, in other words, that tens of millions of Americans who could vote nevertheless decide not to. If you believe that high participation rates are a sign of a healthy democracy, this is a huge problem. As the Pew Research Center noted earlier this year, our voter turnout is among the lowest in the developed world.
There are any number of things policymakers could do at the margins, like holding elections on weekends, making election day a federal holiday, automatically registering voters, or providing generous access to early and no-excuse absentee voting. Some states implement one or more of these policies already.
But until policies like those become more widespread, our turnout levels will be embarrassing. If voters in a democracy get the government they deserve, perhaps in the U.S. we deserve a government that doesn’t bother to show up.