The People Who Don't Vote

The People Who Don't Vote

The last minute polling and calculations that attempt to predict the results of tomorrows election are dealing with the people who will vote. The recurring reality is that about half of the people who could vote do not. Turnout of people of voting age is typically just over 50% in presidential elections and less than 40% in midterm years. Pew Research has an interesting report on the characteristics of the people who do not vote.

The Party of Nonvoters

As in past elections, nonvoters 1 – those who are either not registered to vote or are considered unlikely to vote in the upcoming midterms – are very different demographically from likely voters:

They’re younger. Roughly a third (34%) of nonvoters are younger than 30 and most (70%) are under 50; among likely voters, just 10% are younger than 30 and only 39% are under 50.

They’re more racially and ethnically diverse. Fully 43% of those who are not likely to cast ballots Tuesday are Hispanic, African American or other racial and ethnic minorities, roughly double the percentage among likely voters (22%).

They’re less affluent and less educated. Nearly half of nonvoters (46%) have family incomes less than $30,000, compared with 19% of likely voters. Most nonvoters (54%) have not attended college; 72% of likely voters have completed at least some college.

There is nothing startlingly new about this information. However, as we approach an election that may tilt the balance of power between the two parties, it is appropriate the think not just about the people who will vote and who they will vote for, but also about the silent majority who will not speak at the ballot box.

These factors are by no means absolute. There will be middle aged middle class white people who do not vote tomorrow. There will be poor people of color who go to some difficulty in order to vote. However, the differences are large enough to be significant. The essence of it seems to be that the more people view the established system as being concerned with their interests, the more likely they are to participate in an election and those who feel alienated from that system are less likely to vote.

Bill Clinton and the DLC came up with the New Democrats strategy in the 1992 election. Since then the two parties have spent much of their energy and resources trying to be in the center on the assumption that elections will be decided by middle class suburban independent voters. That is a pragmatic strategy of focusing on the people who are most likely to go out and vote for somebody. Barack Obama's emergence began to make that picture a bit more complicated. His presence on the ballot has been responsible for a significant increase in the turnout of people of color, particularly African Americans. The GOP has responded to this development with electoral laws in states that they control that are aimed at repressing the turnout of the people who are already less likely to vote. Democrats have logically opposed those efforts and challenged the laws in court. One question is whether their opposition is motivating the likely targets of this suppression to go to the polls in defiance of it. I haven't seen any information about the impact of that.

There is a long term demographic shift underway which indicates that the people who are disproportionately represented in the non-voting public will become a majority of the population by mid century. This has huge implications for the future of both parties. It is probable that there will be realignments of the basic coalitions as has happened several times in the course of the nation's political history. In the nearer term both parties are dealing with an uncertain transition. GOTV campaigns right before an election may have some impact on getting members of the base to the polls, but for the people who are fundamentally alienated from the whole process it will take longer term policy campaigns that attract their attention.

A current example of this is the issue of immigration. It is a matter of paramount importance for Latinos. Those that voted in recent elections leaned decidedly Democratic. However, their overall turnout has been consistently below average. At the moment Latino activists are alienated from both parties over the lack of action on immigration policy. The problem for Democrats is not just keeping those who do vote from voting for Republicans. It also involves getting more of those who don't vote to come and vote for them. As the fastest growing group in the eligible electorate, this is a constituency that simply cannot be ignored.      


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