Two out of five: in search of the lost voter

The election statistics say three out of five eligible voters go to the polling stations in every or almost every election. What about those two who choose to stay at home? Who are they? We tried to trace their sociological portrait.

Author: Khatuna Nachkebia has been doing sociological and political research for 30 years now. She founded the Applied Research Company in 2006 and helps with international organizations, businesses, and media to get insights into their clientele and beneficiaries.

Every recent election race in Georgia is the hunt for those three voters that go religiously to polls. The parties are thus fishing in the same finite pond: investing resources in getting out the recalcitrant non-voters is risky, but nobody has seriously tried to do that, either. In fact, bringing out those two out of five to the voting booth could upend the elections.

So we decided to start at the top and to find out – through our small research [1] – what are the common sociological characteristics and dispositions of those people that do not vote.

A quantitative study allows for profiling the respondents through one or several variables – from their demographic characteristics to their values and behaviors. These profiles help sociologists to nail down the variables that affect behavior and vice versa – how the behaviors may affect values and opinions.

Let’s get back our two groups – those who routinely vote and those who routinely stay at home.

For those who vote, the elections are associated with “change” – which they expect afterwards.

Those who don’t, say no political party represents them, so they do not see any reason for voting. Whoever wins, there won’t be any “change” they care for.

In our survey and in focus groups they exhibit the following opinion patterns:

  • They have not voted for “any government” and are proud of it;
  • Since they don’t see “their government” rule the country, they don’t feel bound by obligations towards the state – even though they feel free to criticize that government – elected by their neighbors…
  • They don’t link elections with the renewal of any sort; the voting day is not “the new beginning”.

Yet, they will be happy to see the government:

  • Paid them higher wages;
  • Let them keep more tax money to be used for vacations;
  • Better ensured their safety,
  • and better assured their retirement.

Which is to say, those eligible voters that stay home, are passive electorally, unsatisfied – socially, and exhibit clear preference towards the nanny state.

That brings us to the following line of inquiry: are the values of those two groups different? We tried to see, how each group sees their ideal country.

The quantitative study showed that those who routinely vote, see their ideal country as democratic, economically strong, and educated. These were the concepts they have prioritized in an open-ended question.

Those who stay at home, project their ideal country as: economically strong, educated, and having a high employment rate.

It is there, logical and on the surface – those who do not go to vote, value democracy less. This difference is statistically significant and not random. It is very likely, that if our survey was statistically more representative, we’d get similar results.

We decided to dig deeper to understand what our respondents meant by “democracy” or by “economic strength” – and whethr our two groups differed in definitions.

For the large majority, democracy means fair elections and a high standard of human rights protection. Yet, our two groups exhibit a marked difference in preferences for various elements of democracy.

While those respondents who routinely vote, prioritize freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and open political debate, those who stay at home are more likely to stress collaboration for the common goal, mutual assistance, charity, and protection of the weak.

“Economic strength” is synonymous with private prosperity in both groups. The associated notions are “unemployment”, “underpaid work”, “nepotism”, and issues related to labor rights, retirement, and access to health.

Here is a typical quote from one of the representatives of the staying-at-home group, recorded during the focus group:

“I know very well what democracy is and it truly is a good thing, but can we speak about democracy in Georgia, where it is only for those who are well off? A poor person cannot realize her potential, so for her, it became all the same – whether the country is democratic or not…”

We can infer, that people who stay at home and do not vote perceive themselves to be poor – perhaps this is not necessarily absolute poverty, but definitely comparative poverty – perceived lack of ability to be socially significant citizens with a political agency. Democracy for them is, at best an abstract positive concept and at worst, an instrument of political (and economic) domination by others. Attention though! Not all citizens that carry such attitudes refrain from voting – there could be other factors- patriotism, loyalty to a particular party, respect towards other family members, to name the few – that may induce them to go out and vote.

As a tentative conclusion: it is up to politicians to make democracy accessible to all – if currently skeptical eligible voters find someone that represents their interests, they will go out to vote, thus expanding the electoral pool.

Yet, most politicians still seem to refrain from reaching out to the disillusioned voters. “You can’t bring them out anyway”, they say. That seems to be only a pretext. Perhaps they just don’t want to hear about tangible needs and wants they might have to fulfill if elected? That is one hypothesis.

[1] The research was conducted using a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods. The quantitative study was held online, using SurveyMonkey platform with 589 persons responding. The qualitative study involved 6 focus group meetings.

This research was funded by the USAID in frames of the East-West Management Institute’s project Advancing CSO Capacitities and Engaging Society for Sustainability (EWMI-ACCESS). Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not imply an endorsement from either USAID or EWMI-ACCESS.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)


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