Shortly after civil rights hero and Georgia Congressman John Lewis appeared in East St. Louis last week at a get out the vote rally for Democrats, he tweeted a plea weighted down with history and sacrifice.
“I have been beaten, my skull fractured, and arrested more than 40 times so that each and every person has the right to register and vote,” he wrote. “Friends of mine gave their lives. Do your part. Get out there and vote like you’ve never voted before. #vote #goodtrouble.”
But to around half the eligible voters in the United States, John Lewis might as well have never existed. In 2016, 43 percent of eligible voters, around 100 million people, didn’t vote. In the last midterms, in 2014, 63 percent of eligible voters, over 146 million, stayed home. Some of that is due to voter suppression and purging of voter rolls. But a Government Accountability Office study under the Obama administration in 2014 concluded that those policies suppress turnout by, at most, two percentage points.
In Georgia, purging of voter rolls by Secretary of State Brian Kemp (who also happens to be the GOP candidate for governor) and his refusal to recognize over 50,000 new voter registrants have become the major issues in Kemp’s fight to keep Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams from becoming Georgia’s first black governor. But a friend of mine who’s been canvassing for Abrams sent a disturbing note a few days ago.
“I was canvassing in Glynn County, GA this weekend, and it felt to me, as far as the citizens of Brunswick, GA are concerned, November 6 will be just another Tuesday in November,” he wrote. “There’s a feeling that they couldn’t care less. They’ve been unmoved for a very long time.”
The areas he canvassed were working-class and poor and were mostly, but far from exclusively, African-American. The attitudes in rural Georgia seemed to mirror a 2016 New York Times story about low turnout in predominantly black areas of Milwaukee. It quoted Milwaukee resident Cedric Fleming: “I don’t feel bad for not voting. They never do anything for us anyway.”
Anecdotes are not data. And the outcome of the 2017 special U.S. Senate election in Alabama shows just the opposite: robust African-American turnout, especially among women, propelled Democrat Doug Jones to victory over Republican candidate and accused pedophile Roy Moore. Pundits like the incomparable Eugene Robinson have written that black women will be the key to these midterms, especially in the Missouri Senate race between Incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill and GOP challenger Josh Hawley.
But the fact remains that, among all Americans, 63 million voted for Trump, 66 million voted for Hillary, and 100 million didn’t vote at all in 2016. Why?
The Pew Research Center studied registered voters who didn’t vote in 2016 to find out. They discovered that 26 percent said they didn’t vote because they didn’t like the candidates or the campaign issues. Another 15 percent chose not to vote because they just weren’t interested or felt that their vote wouldn’t make any difference, while 14 percent didn’t vote because they were “too busy” or had conflicting schedules. Only six percent said they didn’t vote because of registration problems or because the polling place was too far away.
The disinterested, apathetic, alienated, and over-scheduled account for around 55 million potential votes. And while the entire phenomenon is often filed under “voter apathy,” the largest number of non-voters are due to something else entirely – voter alienation. While that alienation from the entire system cuts across racial and demographic groups, it’s more severe in some than in others.
Despite the surge in registrations spurred by high school activists who survived the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, voters under age 29 have the worst voting record of any group in the United States. In the 2016 election, only half of eligible 18- to 29-year-olds voted. In the last midterms, in 2014, their turnout was less than 20 percent. When four out of five members of any demographic group fail to vote, any candidate depending on that group is going to lose.
As some African Americans say their lifetime’s experience with racism and unresponsive politicians have convinced them that voting is usually futile, members of the under-29 voting bloc have their own life experience that’s soured them on voting. Their earliest memories are of 9/11 and the surveillance state and two failed wars that followed and still continue. As adolescents, they saw greedy financiers take down the world’s economic system and not go to jail.
They’ve seen wages stagnate, steady full-time jobs with benefits become rarer, and the part-time benefit-less gig economy take over employment, from Uber and bartending to temporary coding and IT jobs that offer long hours and minimal pay. They find themselves crushed under student debt, with 44 million borrowers owing a staggering $1.5 trillion in student loans.
Attempts to solve the problem through automatic voter registration, increased numbers of polling places, and making election day a federal holiday are worthy endeavors, and each of those things should be implemented. But the crisis of voter alienation is profound. Tens of millions of Americans have simply given up on, and checked out of, the entire political system.
The cause has been the slow decline of American economic life, with two, sometimes three jobs necessary to keep a family’s head above water, while the oligarchical one percent hoovers most of the nation’s wealth into their own pockets. The result has been the rise of Trump and American fascism as white nationalist voters blame the decline not on the rich, but on non-whites.
This is arguably the most important election since 1860. It’s also a chance for non-voters to look John Lewis straight in the eye and explain why they’re too alienated, or too busy, or too unengaged to vote.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.