Why millions of Georgians choose not to vote

BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Over 3 million people who were eligible to vote in Georgia chose not to in the 2018 midterm election. A new survey sheds light on some of the reasons why.

The report by the nonpartisan Knight Foundation — the largest survey of nonvoters ever conducted — comes as candidates are trying to win over Georgia voters and find out what would motivate nonvoters to get to the polls. The foundation surveyed “nonvoters” in Georgia and across the country, defined as those who had participated in one or fewer of the past six national elections.

Of the Georgians surveyed, 22% said they chose not to vote because they aren’t interested enough in politics, while 13% said it’s because they don’t know enough about the issues.

Georgia nonvoters reported even lower interest in politics than the national average of nonvoters. When asked to rank their interest in politics from zero to 10, zero meaning absolutely no interest and 10 meaning completely interested, Georgia nonvoters had an average ranking of 6.1. The national nonvoter average was 7.2, and the national average for active voters was 7.7.

Knight Foundation Director of Learning and Impact Evette Alexander said other primary reasons nonvoters chose not to vote were lack of faith in elections and dissatisfaction with the Electoral College.

“They’re much more likely to believe elections don’t represent the people,” Alexander said. “They’re really not sure that the election system actually works.”

More than 3.9 million of Georgia’s 7 million registered voters cast ballots in the 2018 election for governor, meaning more than 3 million eligible voters didn’t participate, according to figures from the Georgia secretary of state’s office.

Alexander said she believes voter registration barriers, specifically around address changes, could also deter some from voting. When voters move to a different county, they are required to re-register to keep their voter status.

“People who moved more recently are more likely to be nonvoters than voters, which could point toward registration issues,” she said.

In Georgia, voters’ registrations are canceled if they fail to participate in elections for more than seven years, if they change their addresses with the U.S. Postal Service, or if their mail from election officials is returned as undeliverable.

Georgia election officials canceled nearly 287,000 voter registrations in December and about 560,000 in 2017, the largest single removal of voters in U.S. history.

Some nonvoters face confusion and misinformation about the voter registration process and their status. Nineteen-year-old student Hannah Lee did not vote in the 2018 midterm election because she was not registered.

“Everyone was saying I could register online, but I don’t have a driver’s license, so I didn’t have identification I could register with, and I didn’t realize I had to go in person until it was too late,” she said.

However, three-quarters of nonvoters in Georgia are registered to vote, according to the study, including 25-year-old teacher Emily Parsons. She has been registered to vote since she was 18 years old but has never voted in a presidential election. Parsons voted for the first time in the 2018 gubernatorial election and said she plans to vote in November’s presidential election for the Democratic nominee.

She said she would be motivated to vote by “a candidate who goes along with my beliefs and will support my generation.”

“I’m an educator, so someone who supports education is important,” Parsons said. “And I also have student loans, so I would want a candidate who looks into addressing those.”

Most people who have not voted previously in Georgia say they will vote in the November election. About 56% of those surveyed said this election is more important than any other presidential election in their lifetime.

Alexander is doubtful that chronic nonvoters will show up at the polls in November.

“I would be very surprised if they all turned out to vote,” she said. “I was surprised that so many people said they were interested in voting in 2020.”

About 34% of those nonvoters would vote for the Democratic nominee if they were to vote in the 2020 election, and 29% would vote for President Donald Trump, according to the survey. Alexander said that Georgia nonvoters favor the Democratic nominee more than nonvoters in any other swing states surveyed (Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin).

But the largest group of nonvoters said they don’t know who they would vote for in November.

Twenty-year-old student Maria Schuler falls into that category.

“I don’t believe in straight party-line voting. I think a lot of people just vote for their party without looking into issues to see if they agree with them,” she said, citing lack of time to do proper research as one of her main reasons to skip the 2018 midterm elections.

Alexander said nonvoters reported less of a desire to be informed about political issues than active voters.

“I think a question moving forward is how do we find easy sources of information about candidates and issues and get that in front of them?” she said.

Emory University political science professor Andra Gillepsie believes the responsibility to inform nonvoters falls on the political campaigns and organizations trying to engage them.

“Its really incumbent upon the campaign or the nonpartisan organization to walk alongside these new or infrequent voters on Election Day and answer any questions for them to make the voting process smooth as possible,” she said. “It’s not just doing a voter registration drive and hoping they figure it out. It’s very intensive.”

Despite slightly favoring Democratic candidates over Trump in Georgia, nonvoters were less likely to be partisan than active voters, and they were relatively split over key issues, Alexander said.

“If they all turned out in 2020, they would pretty evenly split votes between the Democrats and Trump,” she said, about the results of the survey at the national level.

The top issue for Georgia nonvoters was immigration, at 18%.

About 12% of Georgia nonvoters are most concerned about race relations, significantly more than nonvoters in other swing states surveyed.

Health care is another top issue for Georgia nonvoters.

Alexander believes the key to increasing voter turnout is more information about elections and policies.

“What we are seeing is low faith in the election system,” she said, “so I think there could be more education, not just in middle school, about our country and our election system and more transparency in the voting process.”

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