Why people don’t vote in elections

In the last election, turnout was the highest it’s been since 1997. After a decade of lower numbers, 68.8% of the 46.8 million registered electorate went out and cast their vote on who should lead the country.

However, that did leave around 15.2 million people who refrained from going out and exercising their right to democracy, and that’s only the people we know about. It isn’t clear how many eligible voters hadn’t registered as those statistics are hard to come by, but this site puts the eligible number at around 52 million people which would suggest there were 6 million unregistered. This then gives us a total of around 21 million people in the UK who didn’t vote.

To put that into perspective, that’s almost a third of our entire population who decided not to take part in who should rule us.

Around the time of the 2017 general election, I started thinking about the reasons as to why people don’t vote and I’ve got a theory. Granted, I could be wrong and people may just not vote because they’ve weighed up the options and decided they’re either fucked or fine either way, but I’m going to use my own experience of politics as the example.

I grew up in a household where politics wasn’t generally discussed. I don’t remember either of my parents being particularly politically engaged, and I do have one specific memory of going with my mum to cast her vote during the 1997 general election when I was eight years old. As we approached, I asked my mum who she was voting for and she bent down and whispered “Labour, but don’t tell anyone because you’re not meant to tell people who you vote for”. I may have questioned it, but for the duration of my youth I don’t recall ever being inquisitive about politics. Equally, I don’t recall being involved in any political discussions at school or at university, so maybe I’d just become someone who had always believed political opinions weren’t meant to be shared.

This, I think, created a problem. Not sharing political opinions resulted in never actually forming any political opinions of my own. I knew what my core values were on how people and the world should be treated, but I didn’t extend that thinking into politics. I didn’t associate myself with a particular party, nor did I vote in 2010 when I first became eligible to do so.

At 21 years old, in late 2010, I started a job in a place where people were different. A lot of my peers seemed to have all of this knowledge about politics in the current and historical sense, and all knew which party they aligned with. I kept out of the discussions, not letting anyone know that my knowledge of politics was minimal because not knowing anything about politics, and this is where my theory comes in, makes you vulnerable.

We live in an age now where it seems like everyone is an expert on politics as many people share their opinions and beliefs all over social media. Intimidating for someone who doesn’t know a lot about politics or how to engage in it, and a far cry from the ‘you’re not meant to tell people who you vote for’ era in which I grew up. If you don’t know a lot about politics, trying to have a valid voice against everyone else is terrifying. If you try to educate yourself on policies and parties or make a statement about what you believe in without knowing more about it or the source for your point, you’re attacked from either end of the spectrum. Those who are more knowledgeable can quickly tell you you’re wrong, or those who see you as a weak voter can come in with the agenda to persuade you to vote for the party they’re supporting.

Politics is a topic where it’s easy to make yourself look stupid. That’s how it makes you vulnerable, and that’s why I think a large proportion of the country don’t engage in it. It wasn’t until two years ago when I finally summoned up the courage to admit to people around me that I knew nothing about politics that an interest grew. Luckily, I had a friend who sat down with me and explained the way elections work, gave me an overview of the parties, then sent me links to all of the manifestos so I could make up my own mind. He answered all of my questions which I daren’t ask anyone previously, and had the patience to recognise that my lack of political engagement wasn’t down to an overall low level of intelligence, but a low level of understanding in a topic which I’d never been exposed to.

The policies and parties which you believe in are linked to your core values, and opening yourself up to being told you’re wrong or stupid about the way you see the world is the most vulnerable thing you can do. I was lucky in that I had people around me to point me in the right direction without berating or persuading me. From my experience, I would propose that there are a lot of people in the country who don’t have that opportunity, and so don’t vote as a result.

If I’m right, and you want to know more about politics but don’t have anyone you can ask about it, I’ve found these websites particularly useful when it comes to real sources of information rather than tabloid propaganda. Vote for Policies shows you the policies from all parties in an anonymous way, so you can pick which ones you agree with and find out which manifestos they came from at the end, and Full Fact is an independent and unbiased factchecking charity which deciphers through research what’s true in politics.

Maybe one day we’ll live in a world where politics is taught as a form of education from a young age by impartial academics and economists rather than a form of rallying or belittling. But for now, be nice to those who don’t know as much about politics as you do and share facts rather than biased sources. We don’t all have to agree, but we all have the privilege to vote and that’s what needs to be recognised. We do live in a democratic society, after all.

56 thoughts on “Why people don’t vote in elections

  1. I think you are right Sam, never thought of it that way before. I too was taken aback by the political awareness where we worked and, to be honest, hid my ignorance behind the ‘age-card’. As you say, the people were different, expressed opinion backed up by arguments but never imposed. For all the targets and ever-changing processes, the extraordinary people I had the honour of working with gave me much more to reflect on than my philosophy degree ever did.

    For what it’s worth, I think Communism in its idealistic form is right I just don’t think we are quite clever enough to find a way of making it work. We, as in mankind in general and not in the horrific attempts at achieving it.

    Thanks for making me think Sam x

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    1. Thank you, Angela! It certainly was a great group of people there, a bunch unlike any I’ve witnessed before or after. I hope you’re well xxx

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  2. I think your theory may be spot on Sam – like you, I have no memories or recollections of my family having discussions about politics. My dad doesn’t vote, and the few times my mum has voted she’s said the same as your mum, “I can’t tell you, you’re not meant to tell anyone who you vote for”.

    So here I am now, just about to hit the ripe old age of 30, and I’ve never voted. Not because I’m lazy, not because I can’t be arsed, but because I simply do not understand politics and have never been interested enough to go and learn about it or ask anyone.

    There is also the element of vulnerability that you mentioned – I don’t want to appear stupid or ignorant about politics to those that are more clued up, so I tend to avoid conversations that are about politics altogether. This alienates me further, and so doesn’t allow me to learn anything about the parties or policies. It’s a snowball effect, unfortunately.

    I personally think the government themselves are to blame for the high numbers of non-voters. Politics, or at least the concept of politics, should be taught at schools. I know that there was a record number of young people who voted this time around, which was great, but by educating the younger generations about the subject when they’re still at an impressionable age, it will help make them feel less vulnerable in political-based conversations and allow them to form their own opinions so they can cast informed votes when they’re of the age to vote.

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    1. Thanks Becca! I’m glad I’m not the only one who grew up in a non-politics household. I know what you mean about those conversations being alienating if you don’t know much about it too, and you’re right about the government being to blame! They only really pander to their target groups which never includes the youth due to their historically low turnout number. They’re not scared of young people so they don’t engage them! Xxx

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  3. “We live in an age now where it seems like everyone is an expert on politics.” I can’t relate at all since I tell everyone I know nothing about politics, which is seriously true 😛 Thanks for the informative post!

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    1. My meaning was more towards feeling like everyone else is an expert compared to what I know about politics! All the social media participation makes it seem as though my knowledge is poor compared to other people. Another one of those social media perceptions, I think. Thanks for your comment 🙂

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    1. I think the more disruptive politics becomes, the more people are likely to engage in it! Our election was mad, it seemed like the two major parties were at completely different ends of the spectrum. Thanks for your comment!

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  4. I’m from the USA. As I’m sure you know, our last election was a fiasco. The only reason I didn’t vote in the last election was because I had gotten out of the hospital that day. Our schools here, in New York, do teach politics. I remember studying it in both Jr. high and High school.

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    1. That’s good! I wish ours would do more to educate people on politics from a young age. It’s such a tough subject to try and participate in if you haven’t got years of knowledge behind you already!

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  5. I have to admit I don’t know a huge amount about politics, but I try and make sure I find out enough to make an informed vote each time, my other half isn’t into politics at all, but I have managed to get him to vote and he will talk to me and read a bit before he does. I think everyone should vote who has the chance, as it is our time to have our voices heard.

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    1. Thanks Sarah, I agree that we should all use our vote! It look me a while to summon up the courage to do so, but I’m glad I did it!

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  6. Great post and perspective! I had a similar conversation with a coworker from Argentina. She was amazed at how uninvolved to many Americans are in politics, and I mentioned how every person I met from Argentina was very political ( I worked for a company based in Argentina so I had a lot of coworkers who were from Argentina). She told me voting is REQUIRED. I can see the cons in this, but the pro is that the people are very involved with politics and seem much more informed/educated than the average American. It would be interesting to see what effect this would bring to the US.

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    1. Thank you! That’s an interesting way of doing it, making voting required as they do in Argentina. How do they manage that to make sure everyone’s done it?

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  7. Here in the US, politics are a hard topic to discuss, especially if people disagree. I am not heavily into politics, but I know enough to vote. We plan to teach our kids it is important to know the issues and to vote. I know people who don’t vote because they are unsure of their values/opinions on issues. Most of them are young people. I hope for the same as you that politics can be taught so more young people can be educated before they get to voting age.

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    1. It’s the same here, our recent election saw such a huge clash of debates. It’s so important to teach people from a young age, I wish it would be brought in as a requirement! Maybe one day…

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  8. This is a very well written and valid blog post. I really hate all the half-formed political rants you see on social media. I’m pleased that there was such a high turnout this time around too, although it wasn’t enough! I studied politics and history but I think it needs to be taught at school as a mandatory and not a choice.

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    1. Thank you so much! Social media was starting to become a bit unbearable around election time. I enjoyed the memes for entertainment’s sake, but there were so many people seeming incredibly tribal about what they think everyone should believe in. It absolutely needs to be mandatory, I would love to question why it’s never been introduced.

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  9. Oooooh, as a political science major I’m glad I stumbled upon this post because I could really talk about this all day! You’re so right that political apathy plays such a major role in people not turning out to vote in their elections– a mix of not knowing who to vote for, not thinking their vote will matter, and not thinking politics is a big deal is a cocktail of trouble for functioning democracy! Good post!

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    1. That’s exactly it! It’s not until you start looking into politics that you realise how important it is, but without the guidance it’s tough for people to get involved if they know nothing about it. That’s cool you’re doing political science, that must be so interesting!

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  10. Resources, like the ones you shared, need to be more readily available. There is so much ignorance around politics and the only way that will change is if people make themselves more aware of the issues, etc. Sadly, that doesn’t always happen in a proactive way, but having resources and making people aware of the conversation is a great way to start.

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    1. They do, I think people who don’t engage in politics realise there’s such a thing! Full Fact did really well in spreading themselves in the last election, so hopefully they’ll continue to grow and get in front of people who needs it.

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  11. i do agree with you actually and so many people i know unfortunately don’t value the power of voting as they feel too hard done by and strongly believe nothing changes – more awareness is needed but will that happen??

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  12. I haven’t voted in every election we had in my country, because sometimes there just hasn’t been any suitable candidate. I know it is important to vote, otherwise nothing changes. In the country I’m living now the situation is pretty awkward…

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    1. I’ve heard that’s also the case in Argentina, it’s an interesting concept! How is it managed? As in, how do they make sure everyone does it? It should be compulsory, I’m interested to hear how other countries approach politics.

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  13. My parents have always talked openly about politics and I find our friends do the same too. I haven’t ever been that personally interested, though I will often take note of key points of interest or impact on the country and make my decision based on that. It is interesting how voting works in other countries too, as it is illegal not to vote where I like (everyone over the age of 18 has to register to vote and they get a fine if they don’t vote).

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    1. I have heard about some countries making voting compulsory, it’s an interesting way of doing it! I wonder if it’s ever been considered in the UK.

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  14. Politics were never discussed in my household when I was younger too. I’ve only just recently started voting myself after my partner has talked me through it all. I think it’s important that you should educate your children about the importance of voting as it will affect their future too. I’m happy that there has been a rise in people voting this year. Hopefully some of the 15.2 million people will join in next time!

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    1. It definitely is important to educate your children on the subject, that’s great you’re taking a different approach to how we were raised!

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  15. I think the main reason we can blame for the lack of voting is due to the lack of education, I think we should be taught politics in school in a fun environment to encourage debating as healthy, informative and above all interesting! When people are undecided it’s usually because they don’t know and understand enough about either party then when it comes down to who has actually been voted in, past has proved politicians are mostly businessmen who tend to go against their word and do what they want anyway!

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  16. I have always said that if you dont vote you shouldnt complain – why voting isnt compulsary is beyond me, people are quick to complain about things, take handouts etc so why shouldnt they be held accountable for who is in office??!

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  17. I will vote if I don’t have anything to do , or if I have free time . This is not my priority to do in my day . I don’t care politic . In my country politician only approach us if they want to get voted and when they elected they all forget what they say .

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  18. I think they should teach the fundamentals of politics in schools, in order to educate kids how to bit and why it’s so important. But I fear a lot of the people that don’t vote sadly can’t be bothered. My mummy remembers having the same conversation with her mum going to a polling station and keeping everything hush hush.

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  19. I will never understand why people don’t vote. I grew up in a family where everyone was voting and nobody ever thought it’s not worth expressing your opinion. For me this is so shortsighted! It’s our duty.

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  20. This is a really interesting post. I grew up in a family that only talked about politics when there was something on the news about a “mess.” Honestly, I don’t care much about it too. I may voice my opinion and frustration about how the government is being run, but that’s just as far as I go. I don’t attend rallies, or protests. I feel that as long as I abide by the law, and as long as I have a job, a roof upon my head, food on the table, and have enough resources to send my kids to school, I am cool with that. I will leave them to bicker among themselves.

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  21. While education can be a helpful way to get people thinking about this fundamental right in democratic societies, it takes a lot more to get people out the door and into the voting booths. When people feel disaffected, disenfranchised or deprived of the basics for survival, many just don’t have the time or energy to get out there and exercise their right to vote. Some choose not to vote as an act of defiance and I say show your defiance by taking a stand and get your voice heard by electing someone in power who might be better aligned with your thinking… There are other far more complex issues around the subject but tempus fujit!

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  22. I agree. So many people don’t vote because they were not taught about politics growing up. I know that it was not something discussed in my household but I learned about it as I got older. I voted for Labour x

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