The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (December 2016) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
In political science, voter apathy is perceived apathy (lack of caring) among voters in the elections of representative democracies. Voter apathy or lack of interest is often cited as a cause of low turnout among eligible voters in jurisdictions where voting is optional, and the donkey vote where voting is compulsory. Voter fatigue describes a possible cause of voter apathy, which are elections that are held too frequently.
Political alienation may be confused with voter apathy. Sometimes, alienated voters do care about an election, but feel "estranged or disaffected from the system or somehow left out of the political process."
The psychological factors that influence voter behavior are a voter's perceptions of politics, that is, how the voter sees the parties, the candidates, and the issues in an election. The farther down the ballot an office is, the fewer the number of votes that will be cast for it. This is called ballot fatigue. The expression suggests that many voters exhaust their patience or knowledge as they work their way down the ballot.
Prominent Founding Fathers writing in The Federalist Papers believed it was "essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people," and felt that a bond between the people and the representatives was "particularly essential." They wrote "frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured." In 2009, however, few Americans were familiar with leaders of Congress.
In the 19th century there was a substantially large amount of voter turnout with numerous years with over 80% participation. This be due to several factors. One, political machines gave voters an incredible incentive to vote with favors of work, wealth, and political power (which were especially attractive to poor immigrants); however, political machines lost much of their power with the increased ability to vote and with more exposure on corrupt policies.
Vanderbilt professor Dana D. Nelson in Bad for Democracy argues that all citizens seem to do, politically, is vote for president every four years, and not much else; they've abandoned politics. Apathy was lower in the 2008 election, which featured a competitive election for president. Voter turnout in 2008 (62%) was the highest since 1968.
On the other hand, Hunter College professor Jamie Chandler claims that voter apathy, or disinterest in the political system, is overstated in regards to socioeconomic factors. Wealth and educational attainment correlate most strongly with voter participation.
Civic technology seeks to counteract the effects of voter apathy through more modern means, such as social media, applications, and websites. Many startups within the field of civic technology attempt to connect voters to politicians and government, in an attempt to boost voter participation and turnout. Examples include PopVox in the United States and mySociety in the United Kingdom. A John S. and James L. Knight Foundation report found that $431 million had been invested in civic tech as a whole from January 2011 through May 2013, with $4 million specifically invested in voting technologies.
For the 2016 US Presidential election, Facebook implemented reminders to register to vote in its social network. Several election officials have claimed that these efforts significantly increased voter registration.
Effects in the United States
As stated earlier, voter apathy leads to a lower turnout of eligible voters. According to the Pew Research Center, only 55.7 percent of the U.S. voting age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. This percentage is a slight increase from the 2012 election, but lower than the 2008 election, which had record numbers. Voter turnout numbers in the United States are quite low compared to other developed nations. The United States was ranked 31 out of the 35 countries in this study. The Census Bureau recorded that there were roughly 245.5 million Americans, aged 18 and above, but only 157.6 million of them were registered to vote.
The United States Election Project had similar findings, estimating apathy slightly higher: 46.9 percent of eligible voters did not vote in 2016.
There is an overemphasis on the number of Americans who have claimed they voted. The Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives only recorded 136.8 million people, compared to the 137.5 million who claimed to have voted. This number also includes 170,000 ballots which were blank, spoiled, or null.
Voter registration in the United States is an independent responsibility, so citizens choose whether they want to register or not. This led to only 64% of the voting age population being registered to vote in 2016. The United States is one of the sole countries that requires its citizens to register separately from voting. The lack of automatic registration contributes to the issue that there are over a third of eligible citizen in the United States that are not registered to vote.
Turnout comparisons cannot be solely based on the number of registered voters because Americans who are registered to vote are more likely to vote in an election, since they already took the time to register. The methods used to calculate voter turnout can lead to higher numbers because additional factors are considered. Many Americans do not take the effort to figure and find out how and where to register, as some see it as a burden. Some states have begun to take steps to facilitate the registration process by authorizing "same day registration" or allowing registration at the time they receive their drivers license.
On the other hand, there are quite a few states that have harsher voter ID laws. Some states required that a person must live at their current address for one year before they can register to vote in that state. Up until 2003, about 44 states allowed some kind of residency requirement for registration. Now, it is illegal for a state to require residency for more than 30 days before the election. Many critics believe that these restrictive laws make it more challenging for certain minorities to cast a ballot. Critics also emphasize the fact that elections are held on a Tuesday during the daytime, which is a time when many citizens are at work. To overcome this obstacle, some states offer absentee ballots and voting through mail.
People from lower income families also will not register to vote because of jury duty. Registering to vote in many places across the United States means that a person's name is placed into the jury pool for that location. Many of the poor people in society cannot afford to skip work in order to go to jury duty. Rather than risking their income, these people will give up their chance to vote.
There is no direct correlation between increased voter registration and higher voter turnout. The two have a relationship, especially since stricter registration rules in turn create a probability of restricting overall turnout rates. Although registration requirements have become more lenient over time, turnout continues to decline and stay comparatively low.
Since 1976, voter turnout has stayed between an 8.5 percent range of fluctuation and has been on a historical downward trend, although it can differ among certain racial, ethnic, and age groups. Turnout has been lingering between 48% and 57% since 1980.
The age factor in voting plays a significant part in the voter turnout. Voters in the older age groups (45-65 year old and 65 and older) have the highest rate of voter turnout. In the time span from 1964-2004, 18-24 year olds usually had a voter turnout of 41.8%, compared to 25-44 year olds who had a turnout of 57.9%. The older age groups, 45-65 year olds and the 65 and older group has turnout rates of 69.3% and 66.6%, respectively. Older Americans are overrepresented during elections. The greatest percentage of unregistered voters is in the 18-30 year old age group. These people are more focused on other aspects in their life, such as college, marriage, careers, etc. that they in turn do not pay attention to registration. Voters tend to be older, wealthier, and more educated than non-voters.
In a USA Today poll taken in 2012, 59 percent of citizens who chose not to vote because they believed that "'nothing ever gets done' in government". Another 54% of non-voters believed there was corruption. Thirty seven percent just admitted that politics did not make any difference in their lives and that is why they choose not to vote.
Certain voters are likely to refrain from elections in comparison to others because of politicians. Politicians generally oblige to the interests and wants of the citizens voting for them, and the welfare of some citizens is not properly attended to by these politicians. Voters and non-voters can have the gap of politicians taking into account certain needs over others. Low turnout rates during primaries are caused by the apathy about who will make it to the general election. Many believe only the general election matters. The voter apathy causes serious problems in congressional elections also, since the electorate either will be heavily Republican or Democrat. Candidates chosen out of these increasingly polarized voter pools heighten rigidness and gridlock in the government.
Voter apathy has intensified along with the 2016 election, as citizens did not appreciate the political slander and denunciation of both candidates.
"The smaller the voter pool becomes, the more weight a single vote carries and the easier it becomes for an active, partisan minority to determine an election's outcome."  There is generally an inverse relationship between level of government and turnout rates.
There are two primary causes for voter apathy: alienation and voter fatigue.
Alienation is defined as, “this refers to the sense that voters feel like the political system does not work for them and any attempt to influence it will be a fruitless exercise.” This could be due to many factors. One of the reasons is due to lack of education. According to a study done by Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of CIRCLE, found that nearly 20% of youth did not feel that they knew enough to vote. Additionally, the study found that many youth had glaring misconceptions about the voting process with many several in the study thinking that they could not vote due to relatively minor violations (like driving under the influence). This 20% is especially significant when juxtaposed with the 20% total youth turnout in the 2018 midterms.
Voter fatigue is defined in political science as, “voter fatigue is the apathy that the electorate can experience under certain circumstances, one of which could be that they are required to vote too often.” One of the possible causes for voter fatigue is the barrage of political messages through the internet (especially social media). With the large amount of exposure to political messages year-round can cause a fatigue that turns potential voters away from the voting process.
Along with those two main causes, voter apathy can be caused by being uncomfortable with the possible choices, being are unable to vote due to legal or logistical barriers, being overwhelmed by personal issues, or encountering registration problems.
One of the possible solutions to voter apathy in the younger generation is increased education.
Multiple studies have shown that decreased civic instruction starting in the 1960’s has led to decreased young voter turnout. In 2014, there was a record-low turnout of adults 18-29 with 20% casting a ballot. In 2018, only nine states required at least one year of government or civic education. According to a 2018 survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, only one third of Americans could pass a general citizenship test, 13% of young Americans knew when the Constitution was ratified, and less than 50% could identify which countries the United States fought in World War 2. According to the Tuft study, this has led 20% of young adults to avoid voting due to not knowing enough information to cast a ballot.
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