Tens of thousands left the president option blank, though ‘undervotes’ were down from 2016

Josh Salman

Matt Wynn

Dinah Voyles Pulver
 
| USA TODAY

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Betty Robertshaw paused for a few moments in the voting booth, the last four years of Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency and the campaign blitzes from recent months still fresh in her mind.

A registered Independent, the 73-year-old from the suburbs of Philadelphia had voted for candidates on both sides of the ticket, leaning slightly to the right. She quickly went down the list, filling in her favorites for Congress, state and local races. 

Then, Robertshaw left without casting a vote for either of the presidential candidates headlining the ballot. 

She did not support Trump’s policies on social issues and erratic behavior from the White House. But she worried President-elect Joe Biden was too old and she was not a fan of his pick for vice president.

“I just felt that I could not give my vote to either person,” said Robertshaw, who did not vote for president four years ago either. “I just couldn’t do it. I did what I had to do for my conscience.”

The thought may be inconceivable to many Americans who participated in the hotly contested 2020 race. But Robertshaw is among tens of thousands of voters who cast ballots in the general election yet left their choice for president blank – a phenomenon known in political circles as an “undervote.”

Numbers were way down from 2016 but even in a presidential election touted as a turning point for the country, some voters still could not choose – or would not choose – the person they wanted to fill the position in the nation’s highest office.

A USA TODAY analysis of unofficial results in Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada and Michigan found up to 40,000 voters in each of these highly competitive states opted for none of the candidates listed on the presidential ballot by name. 

As of Monday, the four states combined reported less than half the number of undervotes compared to four years ago. The proportion of votes tallied for third-party candidates also slid.

In most of the states, the fail-to-votes would not have changed the course of events. But in Arizona, the number of voters who did not mark any name on the presidential ballot would have been enough to change the apparent outcome – had most of them chosen Trump.

More: Biden’s Arizona lead narrows; Trump not on pace to pull ahead

As of Tuesday, Biden had an edge of just under 15,000 votes in Arizona while more than 34,000 Arizona voters had simply opted not to pick a candidate.

In 2016, the undervotes could have changed the outcome in both Michigan and Nevada.

It’s impossible to pinpoint who the reduction in undervotes between the two elections favored this year. Experts say the decline of third-party ballots likely helped Biden, especially in Rust Belt states. 

Undervotes generally signal voter apathy, which was not the case this year as turnout exceeded all records.

A paper examining the issue after the 2016 election found 1.9% of ballots cast nationally had a blank for the Oval office choice, up from 1% in 2012. The paper said 2016 saw the undervote climb “to levels not seen since the days of Bush v. Gore.”

Stephen Pettigrew, a co-author of that study and deputy executive director of the Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that this year’s preliminary undervote appears to have trended down from that “astronomically high” level.

In Nevada, for instance, he pointed out that the number choosing “none of these candidates” fell from nearly 29,000 to 13,899 so far this year.

Across the country, voters also were less likely to turn to third-parties, as major-party presidential candidates drew a combined 98.4% of the popular vote in the latest counts, up from 95% in 2016. 

The numbers four years ago were dragged down in part by protest from what some political observers call “the Bernie effect”: progressives unhappy over the Democratic Party’s handling of the primary between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

This year’s declined-to-choosers were motivated by other factors.

“They really didn’t like Trump and they don’t trust the Democratic party,” said Jackie Salit, president of Independent Voting, a national organization of independent voters. “People just saw this election as an opportunity to make a statement about the direction of the country.”

Lawrence Brownlee, a religious independent who leans conservative, has voted for both sides but felt he could not support either Biden or Trump. So, the Dalton, Georgia, resident simply did not vote for the top position this year.

“Donald Trump’s demeanor every day is bad for the country,” Brownlee said. “I respect Biden as a person and politician. For me, it came down to him being pro-choice. That was just something that I could not get past … I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for either one.”

Undervotes could flip Arizona

Ballots in Arizona are still being counted, with the state’s 11 electoral votes hanging in the balance. The decline in undervotes there was precipitous. 

Arizona voters left more than 88,000 ballots blank in the presidential race in 2016. That number has so far plummeted by half in 2020, to 34,440 as of Tuesday, according to results available on the state’s website. 

Yet blank votes this year still exceed the lead Biden currently holds in the state. Had those Arizona voters filled in a decision at the top of their ballot, it could have changed the outcome – either making the state easier to call for Biden or flipping it to Trump.

To approximate the undervote for 2020, USA TODAY focused on states with relatively close races that could also provide consistent data.

In Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada and Michigan, the news network took the number of votes each state said it has counted for candidates named on the presidential ballot, then subtracted that amount from the number of all ballots the state said it’s counted so far. The 2016 undervote estimate is based on all votes in hand at the end of the count.

The estimate of votes for president excluded write-ins, which many states have not yet reported, and the analysis treated Nevada’s “none of these candidates” the same as a choice not to pick a named candidate in other states.

Undervotes played a role in Florida in 2018, when Sen. Rick Scott, the outgoing Republican governor, defeated Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson for one of the state’s U.S. Senate seats. Just 12,000 votes out of 8.1 million cast separated the candidates, with 20,000 undervotes statewide. The race went to a recount.

Nelson’s supporters pinned their hopes on a review of ballots in Broward County, where a poor ballot design appeared to cause many voters to accidentally overlook the race. Instructions ran down the left-hand side of the ballot, with the Senate race the only one placed on that page, underneath the instructions.

Democrats argued that Broward’s undervotes may have cost the race for Nelson, who had carried the county with 69% of votes cast.

Democrats also had a hand in the nationwide undervote in 2016’s presidential election, with many supporters of Sanders bitter over the Democratic National Committee’s support of Clinton that year opting out. 

This year, political experts say progressives were too shell shocked over Trump to protest over Biden, who polls show is generally is better-liked by the electorate than Clinton.  

“Voters were too snakebitten last time to do it again,” said Todd Belt, a political management professor at The George Washington University. “It looks like the Democrats learned their lesson.”

Third-party votes dissipate 

Biden regained the so-called blue wall along the Rust Belt lost by Clinton, securing victories in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. But the blue wave the Democratic Party anticipated in 2020 never materialized. 

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Instead, many undecided or independent voters in these states leaned heavily toward Biden. In past years, they had been more inclined to vote third-party or Republican – or skip the presidential race altogether.

VoteCast, a survey of more than 110,000 voters nationwide, asked respondents to identify their party preferences. Among voters who chose neither major party, Biden outperformed Trump in the exit poll by 15 percentage points. Independent Voting, a national organization of independent voters, credited Biden with the largest margin among independents since 1988.

In 2016, Trump carried independents by 4 percentage points, according to Salit, the organization’s president. In 2008, Obama won independents, Salit said. Independents have now voted for the perceived outsider in two straight elections. 

Salit said many independents voted for Trump in 2016 because they wanted someone not seen as a “career politician,” who was willing to go to battle with the establishment. Rust Belt voters especially perceived Clinton as an “elitist insider,” Salit added, making them more inclined to skip the vote or go for Trump or a third-party.

As these independent voters soured on Trump and turned out for Biden, the proportion of undervotes dissipated – as did the counts for third-party candidates.

Four years ago, the Green and Libertarian parties drew more than 4.5% of the vote combined in 27 states. The highest of any state this year, as of Monday, was 3% in Alaska.

Ryan Graham, chair of the Libertarian Party in Georgia, said that this year, many in his party were too afraid of whomever they perceived as the worst of two evils. 

“The problem is polarization between people who self identify as Democrats versus Republicans,” Graham said. “We are divided to such a degree that people weren’t willing to risk the worst bad guy. People are terrified.”

In Pennsylvania, where Biden led Trump by some 47,000 votes as of Tuesday, the share of ballots cast for a Libertarian fell from 2.4% in 2016 to 1.1% in this presidential year.

“It’s the worst ever for third-parties,” said Steve Scheetz, chairman of the state’s Libertarian Party. “But if someone said to me, ‘If I put a gun to your head and you had to pick one,’ I’d take the bullet.”

Contributing: Dan Keemahill and David Heath

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