why do we count people who never vote as voters?

Es­ti­mated reading time is 6 min­utes.

A LOCAL COUNTRY CLUB gives you a free lifetime mem­ber­ship with full ac­cess to its gor­geous 18-hole golf course. Nice, right? But what if you have never hit a golf ball out­side of a minia­ture golf course. What if you have ab­solutely no in­terest in ever playing golf—how much would such a gift count to you and would you count as a gen­uine golfer? 

And what if you never ever in­tend to even learn how to play golf?

Are you then “a golfer” be­cause you have that membership?

No, of course you’re not!


If you’ve never played golf, you’re not a golfer, right? Ap­par­ently not necessarily.


But what if the golf club gave you the mem­ber­ship to boost their mem­ber­ship en­roll­ment for ad­ver­tising pur­poses? They would con­tinue to count you as a golfer.

In fact, your name could be on a na­tional golf reg­istry and when­ever a sports mag­a­zine or golf equip­ment com­pany does a survey of golfers in the US, you’re counted. Then two things would be true:

1. You have never played golf and there­fore are not a golfer.
2. You are one of mil­lions of reg­is­tered golfers in this country.


Count: photo of a golfer on a gorgeous green.

Therefore you are a golfer

If one state­ment is true, can the other be, too?

Is one state­ment ‘truer’ than the other?

It de­pends. If we place our em­phasis on ti­tles and appearances—as many people and in­sti­tu­tions do—then the second state­ment is the truer: You are ‘of­fi­cially’ listed as a golfer, there­fore you are a golfer.

If we place our em­phasis on the ac­tual ac­tion that the word golfer in­tends to describe—as many people and in­sti­tu­tions do—then the first state­ment is the truer: you don’t play golf, there­fore you are not a golfer.

Per­son­ally, I prefer my words to re­flect a real re­ality, not a book­keeping re­ality or a fic­tional al­ter­na­tive, so I go with the first one.

And from there we pro­ceed to what seems more like an al­ter­na­tive re­ality every day: pol­i­tics and the 2016 election . . .


Count: cartoon poking fun at the stupidity of cynical non-voters.

Car­toon by Nick An­derson for The Houston Chronicle.

How many Americans never vote?

What I want to ad­dress here is the normal number of voters who turn up at the polls every four years for the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion? How many are there? I don’t care who they are, just how many they are.

In turn, I will also ad­dress those of our fellow Amer­i­cans who are el­i­gible to vote but who don’t.


How many Amer­i­cans who are el­i­gible to vote but do not ever vote and there­fore won’t vote on the next Elec­tion Day. What I want is a number that rep­re­sents the per­centage of cit­i­zens who can vote and those who did vote.

The fig­ures are readily avail­able: I used sta­tis­tics from the Amer­ican Pres­i­dency Project. There are other sources, but the num­bers are es­sen­tially the same. 1

The 130,000,000 who vote regularly

The Amer­ican Pres­i­dency Project web­site has a chart of the elec­tion years for the pres­i­dency going back to the early 19th cen­tury. Based on the last two elec­tions, the number of Amer­ican who voted is ap­prox­i­mately 130,000,000.

From their fig­ures, I have made a very simple list below that shows each elec­tion year since 1960 with the per­centage of the voting age pop­u­la­tion (VAP) that ac­tu­ally voted.

The VAP figure in­cludes cit­i­zens who are of age but are in­el­i­gible to vote, such as con­victed felons. The number of Amer­i­cans who can legally vote is the VAP minus the in­el­i­gible citizens.

Rather than over­whelm the reader with data and ini­tials, to com­pen­sate for the cit­i­zens who are in­el­i­gible to vote I simply added two (2) points to each per­centage below. So here is the per­centage of el­i­gible voters who turned out on Elec­tion Day and voted over the past fifty-six years:

1960    65%
1964    64%
1968    63%
1972    57%
1976    56%
1980    55%
1984    55%
1988    52%
1992    57%
1996    51%
2000   53%
2004   59%
2008   60%
2012    57%

The drop in 1972 is due to the voting age being low­ered from 21 to 18. And as we have found out since then, el­i­gible voters 18-20 have better things to do than vote. 2

I in­cluded the elec­tions from the ’60s to show what turnout was like with the higher voting age. Since those days are gone, I only used the num­bers from 1972 through 2012 in my list above. With these fig­ures I will es­tab­lish two base num­bers. 3

The 100,000,000 who never vote regularly

The av­erage turnout of VAP in the last forty-four years has been 54%. Due to the low num­bers for 1988, 1996, and 2000, I am using 50% as the per­centage of VAP who al­ways vote, no matter what.

Given the num­bers for 2004 and 2008, I am using 40% as the per­centage of VAP who never vote, re­gard­less of the cir­cum­stances, the is­sues, or the candidates.


Count: poster for the Rock the Vote radio campaign to register voters.

Why do we count people who never vote?

Like the ‘golfer’ who never golfs but who gets counted over and over again as a golfer, we have ‘voters’ who never vote but who gets counted over and over again as voters. So the ques­tion is: Why do we count ‘voters’ who never vote as voters?

For the sake of this ar­ticle, let’s call the first base people Voters Who Count (VWC). Based on the last two elec­tions, that is ap­prox­i­mately 130,000,000 people.

And that is the number that we should be using in con­ver­sa­tions about na­tional elec­tions. 4

This train of thought in­spired by a com­ment posted after Frischling’s ar­ticle. The com­menter seems to be taking the au­thor to task for using cer­tain num­bers, as he opened with this state­ment: “Your math as­sumes without stating that 45% don’t show up on Elec­tion Day.”

Well, yeah! That’s not Frischling’s as­sump­tion: as we have seen, them’s the facts!

The com­ment con­tinues with “Clinton and Trump get about 50% [each] of the votes of the 55% of voters that do show up on Elec­tion Day. That’s under 30% of the total Amer­ican voters.”


Never vote: Photo of Martin Sheen as President Bartlet in THE WEST WING television series.

Every­body’s fa­vorite tele­vi­sion pres­i­dent: Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in The West Wing. The se­ries was an in­ter­esting and rea­son­ably ac­cu­rate look at the daily do­ings of a White House staff. (We just started binge-watching it so I thought I’d throw this in.)

A real mandate to govern

And that’s what kicked this ar­ticle off: the 30% figure. These low num­bers are often used by one side to show that the other side’s Pres­i­dent doesn’t have a real man­date from the ma­jority of voters let alone the people to govern.

But there re­ally is no prac­tical and log­ical reason to count people who never vote as voters. They may be el­i­gible voters but they’re not even po­ten­tial voters!

If we use the VWC num­bers, then the av­erage Pres­i­dent of the United States is elected by the votes of the ma­jority of Amer­i­cans who take their civic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and du­ties seriously.

I like the sound of that . . .


Never vote: photo of golfer teeing off on beautiful greens in Jamaica.

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of the page is of the Beaches Ocho Rios golf course in Ja­maica. (That’s local, right?) I found it at the Beaches web­site where they brag, “Some of the most chal­lenging golf in the Caribbean on our very own cham­pi­onship course in Ja­maica. Anyway you slice it, a Beaches golf va­ca­tion in the Caribbean in­cludes more than any other des­ti­na­tion for family re­sort vacations.”



1   The non-profit, non-partisan Amer­ican Pres­i­dency Project is the leading source of pres­i­den­tial doc­u­ments on the in­ternet. Their archives con­tain more than 100,000 doc­u­ments. Hosted at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­fornia, Santa Bar­bara, the APP is one of the world’s most widely used sources for in­for­ma­tion about the role of the pres­i­dency in Amer­ican democ­racy. All of the rounded fig­ures above can be seen as exact fig­ures on the APP web­site. Their chart on the link above also gives total pop­u­la­tion, total VAP, total reg­is­tered voters, and voter turnout back to 1828.

2   What­ever did they do on Elec­tion Day be­fore there were video games and the internet?

3   Num­bers and per­cent­ages are rounded up or down using the most basic form of rounding: half a point of more rounds up, less than half rounds down.

4   The term Voters Who Count (VWC) is makeshift and clumsy. You are wel­come to coin a more suit­able term.


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