Nationwide, nearly 100 million people were eligible to vote in the last presidential election but didn't. And now, a surge of people who've been MIA in previous elections could alter the 2020 landscape in swing states such as Florida.
Researchers for a new Knight Foundation-commissioned project studied thousands of "chronic nonvoters" — people who've voted once at most in the past six national elections, as well as those who aren't registered to vote but are eligible to cast ballots. The results show 33 percent of nonvoters say they would go with the Democratic nominee if they had to vote in the next election, and 30 percent say they would reelect Donald Trump. The data shows Trump would be the favorite in Florida if all nonvoters turned out.
The study, titled "The 100 Million Project: The Untold Story of American Non-Voters," surveyed 12,000 nonvoters across the nation and in ten swing states, as well as 1,000 consistently active voters and 1,000 young, eligible voters for comparison. The project analyzed national rates of political disengagement and explored the reasons for that disinterest.
"We saw there was a gap in our understanding of nonvoters and why they don't vote," says Evette Alexander, the foundation's director of learning and impact. "The U.S. has historically one of the lowest voter turnouts among developed countries. There's lots of focus on likely voters. We wanted a balance to that to understand the perspectives of people who don't come to the polls."
Reports show that nonvoters who stayed away from the polls in 2016 likely cost Hillary Clinton the election. It's a commonly held notion that nonvoters are generally Democratic-leaning, although that's not exactly true anymore.
"That’s not as much the case now," Alexander says. "Nonvoters are pretty split between Democratic and Republican candidates. We might be in a different era of politics."
One of the grimmest aspects of the study is that the rising electorate — people aged 18 to 24 — are even less informed and more apathetic toward politics than other age groups.
But that demographic, according to the study, is more left-leaning and views gun control, the environment, and race relations as top issues. If the sampled 18-to-24-year-olds absolutely had to vote in November, 41 percent said they would vote for the Democratic Party's nominee and 19 percent would vote for Trump.
Overall, the study shows that nonvoters don't cast ballots because they don't like the candidates. They have little faith in the electoral system and doubt their votes mean much. More than a third of nonvoters surveyed say they don't think elections represent the will of the people and believe the system is rigged. Nonvoters also consume less news than active voters and feel less informed about candidates and their platforms. The media they consume is more entertainment than news.
"When we did follow-up interviews, we heard from nonvoters they're not informed enough and they thought it would be a disservice to the country if they did vote," Alexander says. "That's pretty concerning in terms of who has the time and energy to research and feel educated. We know that active voters overrepresent the college-educated, upper income, and older citizens. We believe democracy works best when it has broad and representative participation of its people."
That apparently won't stop historical nonvoters from showing up at the polls this November. Nearly three-quarters of nonvoters surveyed said they plan to vote in the upcoming presidential election, and 78 percent of those said they were "absolutely certain" they will vote.
Alexander acknowledges that the report doesn't address issues of systemic disenfranchisement and voter suppression. In 2012, for example, former Florida Republican leaders told the Palm Beach Post that voter suppression, particularly of Democrats, was the intent of a law that was passed at the time. Just yesterday, a federal appeals court ruled it was unconstitutional to force former felons in Florida to pay restitution and fines before being allowed to vote. The case isn't over, though, and it's expected to be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Organizations such as New Florida Majority work on civic engagement and voter education in historically marginalized communities. According to the Knight Foundation study, nonvoters are "less educated, poorer, and more likely to be minorities, single, and women."
Dwight Bullard, New Florida Majority’s political director and a former state senator, says the organization confronts people's mistrust of political institutions and candidates every day. He says nonvoters fall into three buckets: People who think politicians don't make the effort to get to know them, their communities, and their needs; people who believe that politicians, regardless of party affiliation, have never done anything to benefit them; and people who are suspicious of politics and politicians altogether.
"Everyone says they care, and then, when they get into office, there's no significant change," Bullard says. "There's a strong, intrinsic belief that anyone who’s running for office can't be trusted because they're only out for personal gain."
He says New Florida Majority tries to break through those misgivings by teaching people how to own or reclaim their own political power and turning them into advocates for themselves and their communities. The organization's volunteers are on the ground registering voters and hosting civic events. The needs of marginalized communities are layered, he says, and to persuade people to come out, those needs must be addressed. New Florida Majority's Miami-area events, for example, take place after daytime work hours and offer language services, childcare, and food.
"We try to be very intentional about the type of spaces we hold and in evaluating how we show up as an organization," he says.
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Candidates' talking points for black communities generally center on criminal justice reform, but that issue isn't the only one that needs addressing, Bullard says.
"We hear black people are in jail, so if we say we're trying to end mass incarceration, that's going to be the thing to make black people turn out," he says. "Well, no. We want to talk about closing the racial wealth gap, homeownership rates between different races and backgrounds, maternal mortality rates among black women. The lack of addressing those concerns creates a chilling effect."
Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman Steve Simeonidis says the party is trying to engage younger voters in particular because they side with more progressive issues. He says it's concerning that people have such little faith in their government and electoral system.
"I hope the people of Florida realize they sit in the most important state and the most important election of our lifetime," Simeonidis says. "I hope they take the opportunity to get out and make their voices heard as opposed to staying at home and letting other people speak for them."