“The most important election of our lifetime” is underway. Again. For real this time!
If past presidential elections are any indication, nearly half of eligible voters will sit 2020 out. Those nonvoters will be too busy, not interested or simply disillusioned. And they mostly won’t be readers of local newspapers.
That’s one of the findings in a fascinating new study released by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of its 100 Million Project. The name of the project refers to the nearly 100 million eligible voters who didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election.
For this column, let’s take it as axiomatic that greater voter turnout in a representative democracy is a good thing. The more people participate, the more accurately the results of an election reflects the will of the majority. It’s even better when those voters are knowledgeable about the candidates and the issues.
Alas, the value of voter participation is not so axiomatic in practice. Partisans seek to suppress turnout on the other side and bolster it on their own with all manner of tricks, abuses and rhetoric. But let’s pretend democratic integrity is more important than partisan gain.
If we care about turnout, we need to care about the news. While we can’t draw causal relationships from the Knight report, the correlations between healthy news consumption and voter participation are striking. It starts with simply registering to vote.
Eligible voters can’t participate in an election if they don’t take that necessary first step. Most nonvoters are registered, but there’s a gap between those who read newspapers (84% registered to vote) and those who get their news from social media (71%) or word-of-mouth from friends and family (66%).
An even wider gap exists among nonvoters who plan to become voters this year. Those who read newspapers are 25 percentage points more likely to vote than people who get their news word-of-mouth.
“Social media and word-of-mouth via friends and family … are consistently tied to lower likelihood of voting in the future, more skeptical views about the efficacy of voting and lower community engagement overall,” the report found.
What makes those findings especially disturbing is that nonvoters rely on social media and word-of-mouth far more than newspapers, radio, news websites and podcasts.
That’s especially acute among younger nonvoters (age 25 to 29). Less than half of them say they actively seek out news. Most just “bump into” it as they go about their day.
The sort of news that I bump into when I’m not seeking out reputable sources tends to be the worst clickbait, conspiracies and paid promotions. It’s not the kind of information that helps voters make good decisions on Election Day and become civically engaged in the community.
There shouldn’t be a preference. Americans should be capable of consuming both local and national news. But if one must take precedence, there’s a good case to make that local news should come out on top. What a city council or a state legislature does directly affects people’s daily lives. Congress might make profound changes, when it manages to act at all, but a city council decides if a homeless shelter will go in down the street from your house.
A vibrant local free press sends reporters to cover city hall and the legislature. It informs voters about candidates and measures that national news skips. It is the information source for a functional democracy, but it only matters if people read it, and too many people don’t.
“Newspaper use, while tied to higher rates of civic engagement and more positive views about voting and the electoral system, has nevertheless become a favored source of news for only small portions of Americans of any age group,” the Knight report found.
No one can make every nonvoter and voter pick up a newspaper, no matter how good it would be for the health of our country. Instead, communities, businesses and government leaders must find creative ways to ensure that the local free press survives for civically engaged voters and nonvoters alike.
If they don’t, 100 million nonvoters might seem like peanuts in a few years.