Political Apathy: The Largest Party of All

(Last Updated On: December 2, 2020)
political apathy

Political Apathy is today’s topic. For me, it naturally leads into Political Morality, which in turn engenders Political Loyalty. Thus political apathy is the first of a set of three blogs about politics. More accurately, these blogs try to understand politics with some help from science.

Here’s an index to the main sections ahead:

Political Apathy: The Non-Voting Majority

Barriers to Voting

Cost of Voting


I don’t know how you voted in the November 3 election. I hope that you DID vote!

And, post-election, here is a statement that everyone I know would agree with: How can over 70 million American voters be so crazy as to vote for that other candidate? What kind of country am I living in, anyway?

However, I’m sorry to inform you that the highest-polling candidate of all, chosen by 100 million Americans, is someone whose name wasn’t even on the ballot: “No One.”

What do I mean by that? Simply that there are 250 million Americans age 18 and older. About 150 million of them voted, which is considered a big number. And we all commend those many people who were highly committed, standing in line for many hours in order to cast their ballot.

But about 100 million people didn’t vote at all. Enough people to have changed the winner, or even to elect someone completely different.

It makes me want to ask: WHY DIDN’T THEY VOTE?

Political Apathy: The Non-Voting Majority

Many consider voting to be key to United States history and values. However, the “no vote” candidate won the 2020 election, just as he or she won every US election for more than 100 years.

– How the US Stacks Up

Americans are rightfully proud of our nation’s accomplishments and of its impact on the world. And as of November 4, Statista found that 66.5% of eligible voters voted in the US presidential election. This is quite a step up from our 55.72% in the 2016 election, where we ranked 30th among developed nations.

However, our political apathy, shown by our voting performance, is still sub-standard from a global perspective. We are in 16th place, behind Japan, Korea, Israel, Hungary, Germany, France and the more northern European countries:

political apathy

Votes cast, PewResearch.com

Why do we seem to care so little about participating in little-d democracy, compared with other countries? Perhaps we can get a clue if we look at voter turnout within the US.

– How the States Compare

The US States show large differences in voter turnout, ranging from 55.3% in Oklahoma to 79.2% in Maine and Minnesota:

political apathy

Voter turnout, Statista.com

– Explaining State By State Results

Naturally, these results make us want to ask: how can one state be more than 40% more successful than another in civic participation, that is, in “turning out the vote”?

I puzzled over this and even constructed a spreadsheet comparing a large number of demographic factors, looking for insights. Specifically, I included degree of urbanization, date of admission as a State, land area, population, population density, median family income and percentage breakdowns by race and religion. Also, I included degree of political leaning, red or blue, as shown by the 2020 Presidential vote. I assigned rank numbers to each State for each of these factors, then looked for correlations of all the data with the voter turnout percentage.

As an explanation of political apathy, this exercise netted very little. Alas, most correlations ranged from zero to 30%, numbers which to me are not very suggestive. Only a few correlations came in over 40%. Here they are, along with my comments in parentheses:

  • 44%: Comparing relative family income with high turnout. (Higher income people are more easily able to vote)
  • 46%: Comparing closeness of the vote (Biden versus Trump) with high voter turnout. (A very close balance in red-blue votes motivated more people to vote.)
  • 47%: Comparing percent of population who are evangelicals with low turnout. (For whatever reason, states with more evangelicals tend to have lower voter turnout.)
  • 55%: Comparing combined high nonwhite population and strong Red vote with low turnout. (Republican-leaning states with high minority populations tend to have lower turnout.)

– Conclusions About State to State Results

A person concerned with voter suppression might see evil intent behind the fourth item above. However, all of the correlations are so small (well under 90%) that none of them seems to qualify as a dominant explanation for low turnout. Moreover, I will remind you that correlation does not imply causation.

Here are some conclusions about state-by-state political apathy:

  • Voter turnout varies widely by State, probably depending primarily on unique and local factors.
  • Every state has room to improve its voter turnout, in some cases by a very large factor.
  • Overall, we might be ashamed that our nation shows so little respect for our freedom to vote that we hardly bother to exercise that freedom!

Barriers to Voting

When you ask people why they didn’t vote, there are almost as many different answers as there are people. FiveThirtyEight and Global Citizen are two of many sources that have reviewed them.

Nonvoter excuses tend to fall into these categories:

  • Disengagement: I don’t care. My vote won’t affect the results. It’s not a priority for me. I don’t like or respect any of the candidates. The people running don’t represent my interests. Someone will find a reason to reject my ballot. Elections are fixed, anyway. And if they really wanted me to vote, they would make it easier.
  • I’m Not Allowed: I don’t have the right kind of photo ID. I’m a convicted felon. Living in a US Territory. Moved and haven’t updated my address records. And I missed the registration deadline.
  • Inconvenience: My state makes it too difficult to register or to get an absentee ballot. There are too few polling places. I can’t take that much time from other activities. And my state requires notarization on an absentee ballot.
  • Risk: My polling place is in a bad neighborhood. There are angry, threatening people around the polls. And voting may expose me to coronavirus.
  • Expense: Voting will cut into my paid working time. And I can’t afford to pay for the transportation or child care.
  • Inability: The polling place is not accessible to me. Couldn’t get help to fill out my ballot correctly. And where is the voting place, anyway?

– Who Are the Nonvoters?

Given these difficulties, it’s not surprising that nonvoters are likely to have one or more of these characteristics:

  • Lower income
  • Younger age
  • Less education
  • Not belonging to a major political party
  • Being disabled
  • Belonging to a minority group

The barriers to voting are substantial. And when the media report our people standing in line for hours to vote, civilized people around the world find it ridiculous, cruel, contrary to US ideals and unnecessary.

– Voter Suppression

The Gerry-Mander

Because people so easily find reasons not to vote, it has been easy for those in power to adjust the rules to keep themselves in their jobs. The variety of rules is astounding but they all boil down to voter suppression, that is, discouraging certain groups from voting.

The United States didn’t invent voter suppression, but we engaged in it from the beginning of the Republic. Washington State offers a four-page history of voting rights that includes the following key dates:

1776: Only white men over age 21 who own land could vote.
1870: Minority men except Native Americans may now vote.
1920: Women may now vote.
1924: Native Americans may now vote.
1984: Polling places must be accessible to people with disabilities.

One of the ways that people change the rules to stay in power is so well-known that it has a name: gerrymandering. It memorializes a strangely shaped electoral district resembling a dragon or salamander that was created in Massachusetts under governor Eldridge Gerry in 1812.

– Countering Voter Suppression

Despite these advances and others (elimination of both the poll tax and literacy tests), individual states still control the rules of voting. And of course the rules are designed to help those in power remain there. As a result, a number of nonprofits support projects to make voting simpler and more universal. Here are a few of them:

– Motivation Increases Voter Turnout

Political apathy is not the whole story. Despite barriers to voting, when people want to vote, more of them succeed in doing so. This is clearly shown by data on naturalized citizens.

Becoming a US citizen is not easy, no matter what you might have heard. And those who make it through the process have had to study up on US government and history, and demonstrate a commitment to the ideals of the US constitution.

We might expect that with this mental preparation, new citizens would be eager to vote. However, when you look at total voters, native-born Americans have traditionally turned out to vote more than naturalized citizens: for example, 62% versus 54% in 2016. This odd result however mainly applies to white people: it is notably not true for other races:

political apathy

Source: PewResearch.com

New citizens who are Hispanic and Asian have much less political apathy: more of them vote than their US-born compatriots. This is surprising, since political candidates are often faulted for not reaching out to these communities. In contrast, foreign-born Whites are notable by their political apathy about voting.

So I say: voting is more difficult than it should be, by amounts that differ with state and differ by who you are. However, the performance of new citizens shows that if a person tries, their chances of voting are greatly improved.

Cost of Voting

You won’t be surprised when I tell you that it’s much easier to vote in some US states than in others. What you may not know is that a team of political scientists has figured out how to measure the difficulty and track it over time. The researchers are professors Scot Schraufnagel at Northern Illinois University, Michael Pomante II at Jacksonville University and Quan Li at Wuhan University in China.

It’s hard to define “difficulty of voting.” After all, many different local rules make voting easy or difficult for each of us. A few (only a few) of them are:

  • How many days in advance of the election do you need to register to vote?
  • Are you allowed to vote absentee or by mail?
  • Are you allowed to vote before election day? If so, on how many different days?
  • How close are the polling stations to where you live?
  • What kind of identification do you have to show in order to vote?
  • How long are the polls open on election day?

The scientists invented a way to score each of these factors and added them together to define a “cost of voting.” Now you may say, hey, I don’t spend any money to vote. But don’t think of this as a monetary cost; it’s more like an aggravation score. Such as, which states annoy their prospective voters the most?

– Voting Cost by State

The researchers examined 33 kinds of state-level laws in effect during the past six presidential elections. They scored nine different factors and many subfactors to come up with an overall score for each US state. Their latest article updates their 2018 study to include 2020 laws, including temporary changes reflecting the pandemic.

Here’s a complete list of winners and losers in this horse race:

2020 Cost of Voting Index, per Schraufnagel, Pomante & Li

– And the Winner Is …

The states of Oregon and Washington won the sweepstakes with the easiest voting rules. These states, plus states like Utah and Illinois, have voter-friendly policies such as online voter registration, early voting, mail-in voting, being able to register as late as Election Day and automatic voter registration.

And who are the losers? The states with the most difficult voting are, hands down, Texas, followed by Georgia, Missouri and Mississippi. Factors pushing their rating down are restrictive registration rules, fewer polling stations, strict voter ID laws, cumbersome absentee voting processes and a lack of early voting options.

– Does Cost of Voting Account for Lousy Voter Turnout?

If you have been paying attention you doubtless said “Aha!” Perhaps the cost of voting accounts for the variation in voter turnout from state to state that we previously discussed?

That’s what I thought, at least. But alas – I calculated the correlation and found it to be at best 40%. I rank this as “potentially contributory” but far short of “explanatory.” If we want more folks to vote, it’s not enough to make the rules easier – it’s also necessary to build up their desire to vote.

– What Progress Are States Making

We might also ask, are states making voting easier, or more difficult? The researchers highlight the biggest recent changes, up or down, in the cost of voting.

West Virginia, Missouri and Iowa made the biggest reductions in the cost of voting, reducing it by 0.19 from 2016 to 2020. Also, Virginia approved an automatic voter registration law, got rid of the in-person registration deadline and made Election Day a state holiday. And Michigan voters approved eight changes to the state constitution making it easier to register and cast a ballot.

Moreover, on top of these revisions, 19 states made temporary changes to ease voting due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Here’s a bonus: states that simplified voting procedures were able to reduce their expenses while improving their service to voters! It’s not a surprise that simpler costs less money.

If there are winners, there are also losers. States that moved down significantly in their rankings included West Virginia, Missouri and Iowa, primarily because they did not modernize their policies as other states have been doing. In addition, Georgia and Texas hurt their scores by eliminating polling stations to make it more difficult for some voters to exercise their rights.


Political apathy, demonstrated by low voter turnout, is a complicated situation. Here’s what we can conclude:

  • Among developed countries, the US has a noteworthy disinterest about exercising one of its supposedly important freedoms.
  • Turnout varies from state to state with reasons that seem to depend on unique and local factors. Some states make it much easier to vote than others.
  • There are many reasons why people don’t vote. Some of them are economic or demographic. And others are racial or discriminatory.
  • Motivation is important to increasing voter turnout. And the most important factor that causes people to vote is an intense interest in the outcome of a particular election.
  • Government of the people, by the people, for the people requires participation by the people. Every citizen who values American ideals should support rules that make voting easier for everyone.

This blog on political apathy has been the first of three about current politics and partisanship. Hopefully we have illustrated the value of motivation plus easier voting rules (and an additional benefit of moving to Oregon or Washington). The next installment will consider why the folks we don’t agree with seem to be so irredeemably EVIL…

Image Credits:
– Alarm clock adapted from krzysiu on openclipart.org
– Sleep bubble from Arvin61r58 on openclipart.org
– Votes cast in recent national elections per PewResearch.com
– Voter turnout rate by US State in November 2020 election per Statista.com
– Sleeping computer user from oksmith, on openclipart.org
– The Gerry-Mander drawing by Elkanah Tisdale in public domain
– Foreign-born election turnout from Pew Research
– Cost of Voting Index from Schraufnagel, Pomante & Li


Political Apathy: The Largest Party of All — 12 Comments

  1. Art,
    This blog is perhaps the most comprehensive and analytical discussion of voter apathy that I have ever read. I encourage you to submit this astute analysis to the editors of publications such as the New York Times and/or The Washington Post, so that many more citizens can have a better understanding of this epidemic problem with our democracy.

    • Hi Paul, you are very kind, many thanks! I regret that I don’t have a feasible proposal to improve the situation, to overcome the national and state political barriers to improving voting numbers. And if you want to nudge your favorite media to boil these 2800 words down to a readable story, that’s great, they are welcome to compress and adapt my work for the national benefit. But you might want to see the next two blogs in the series first, which tackle a related, worse problem: our political polarization. – Art

  2. Interesting article Art. I’m looking forward to the next installments. I’m intrigued by “disengagement” and as Bill Stanchina said our public educational system is lacking. I wonder about our culture. I lived in a small village while in Peace Corps and was astonished at how much the people understood about our politics. These folks, many with little formal education, could easily teach civics courses in the United States! There’s was a culture that had little to do with work identity and everyone was trying to survive. Things move fast in the states unlike in other countries. Work is the foundation of identity in the United States for many and survival is another aspect. Both work and survival are time killers. Time is of the essence and so I wonder if this lack of time leaves us without the knowledge of what is happening in our own neighborhood, city, state, country, world. If one is unaware of current issues it seems natural that voting would not be a priority. I wonder how much our culture plays a part in motivational interest. Public education certainly plays a part, but leaves us flat as we move through a time-challenged life.

    • Thanks for your comment, Karen. I’ve always been amazed at the broad knowledge possessed by just about every European I ran into. However, when I read what you say, it’s not just formal education that leads to that breadth but cultural factors that tell people, you need to learn and understand as much as you can or you won’t survive! Logically, people should care a lot about voting for city and county people who can more directly affect their lives, and a mayoral election should bring out many voters. But instead we seem have a situation where more people vote when there’s a visible presidential candidate who inspires their hope or fear. Celebrity or notoriety counts more than issues and values. We could improve public education, and we should for many reasons, but it’s not sufficient to keep our culture on a constructive path. – Art

  3. Art: Sara and I may be anomalies, but we never question how someone else voted, or for that matter care. We are centrists, and have far left and right friends. We avoid some subjects when together, and simply enjoy them for who they are. We would never try to convert anyone to our positions, and don’t want everyone to be the same. We dislike both parties, almost equally. I haven’t liked the last several presidents, but want them all to be successful. Trump was interesting, in that many of his policies have been good for our country. With that being said, his behavior was (is) so abhorrent, that I’ll be happy to see him gone. Biden will likely do some serious harm to the USA, but the pendulum will probably swing in another 4 years. Oh well, it’s great to be old.

    • Hi George, and thanks for your comment! It’s true that experience (getting older) brings perspective, at least, and perhaps even wisdom. I find many things to dislike about politicians of both parties but what I hate even more is the polarization and hate-mongering. About which, more to come next week… Art

  4. This is very interesting and addresses a number of questions that seem relevant. It’s too bad that there’s not a few clear explanations. Despite the fact that many people did exert serious effort to vote this year, we still don’t have enough societal “umph” that pushes more to do likewise. Maybe there is just a broad shortage of understanding of civics and citizens’ responsibilities in a democracy??? How to improve on this??? Go back to the old days of public education (e.g. what I enjoyed in the 60’s)?

    • Bill, it’s a real dilemma. One reason our elections are resistant to foreign interference is that they are so decentralized (over 100,000 voting precincts, I think). So that’s a good thing. Other countries tend to have uniform election laws across the whole country, which require easy procedures and places for voting. Which would be a good thing for the US, but might make us vulnerable to meddling. You’re right, education could play a useful role, not only in promoting public participation but also in promoting some national unity. – Art