Feeling Powerless, Even Civic-Minded People Don't Vote

Nearly half of Americans are "interested bystanders" who are aware of world events yet refuse to vote. A new survey finds that interested bystanders tend to take civic action only when they have a personal or professional stake.

Nearly half of Americans are "interested bystanders" who are aware of world events yet refuse to vote, according to a new study out of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. The reasons are myriad. Interested bystanders feel powerless. They don't like that voting feels like an obligation. Getting involved requires a certain level of altruism that these folks don't appear to possess. As Ariel Schwartz writes at Fast Company, interested bystanders tend to take civic action only when they have a personal or professional stake:


"While interested bystanders associate the political aspects of civic life with conflict and shame, they are attracted to community involvement, like volunteering. Primary motivations are personal interests and expertise, as well as emotional fulfillment. Voting, at least as it stands today, just doesn't provide that fulfillment. It's an obligation."

On one hand, this could be treated as an indictment of the selfish do-nothing. On the other hand, perhaps this is something that cannot be avoided. People are going to be people, no matter what. These findings could prove valuable in helping lay the groundwork for programs that entice local citizens to perform necessary civic duties, like voting.

"Imagine if all the interested bystanders who don't go to the voting booth suddenly became motivated to participate in politics. 'We need to think about the mechanisms of voting,' [Berkman fellow Kate Krontiris] says. 'Voting no longer fits the way we live. But it might be filled with meaning if there were more direct connections to community and social activities that give people satisfaction.'"

Read more at Fast Company.

Below, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheryl WuDunn explains why volunteering is beneficial to all parties involved:


Photo credit: Sunny Forest / Shutterstock

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