In the 1960s, when Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere was accused by the US of running a one-party state, he replied, “The United States is also a one-party state but, with typical American extravagance, they have two of them.”
Nonvoters Are Not Privileged. They Are Disproportionately Lower-Income, Nonwhite, and Dissatisfied With the Two Party Duopoly.
by Glenn Greenwald edited by O Society April 15, 2020
NOT EVEN 24 HOURS elapse since Bernie Sanders Drops Out and already a shaming campaign launches against those of us who contemplate abstaining from voting due to dissatisfaction with the two major party candidates.
The premise invoked for this tactic is supposedly only those who are sufficiently “privileged” have the luxury of choosing not to vote — meaning nonvoters are rich and white and thus largely immune from the harmful consequences of a Trump presidency, which largely fall on the backs of poorer and nonwhite Americans.
This tactic rests on a caricature: It is designed to suggest the only people who make a deliberate and conscious choice not to vote due to dissatisfaction are white trust fund leftists whose wealth, status, and privilege immunize them from the consequences of abstention.
By contrast, this “You Must Vote” campaign insists, those who lack such luxuries — poorer voters and racial minorities — understand voting is imperative.
This assertion about the identity and motives of nonvoters is critical not only to try to bully and coerce people into voting by associating nonvoting with rich, white privilege, but also to suppress any recognition of how widespread the dissatisfaction is for both parties and the political system generally among poor and nonwhite citizens.
The problem with this claim is a rather significant one: It is based on the outright, demonstrable falsehood to claim those who choose not to vote are primarily rich, white, and thus privileged, while those who lack those privileges — voters of color and poorer voters — are unwilling to abstain. This is something one can believe only if one’s views of the country and its electorate are shaped by social media and cable news bubbles.
The truth is exactly the opposite. Those who choose not to vote because of dissatisfaction with the choices offered are disproportionately poorer and nonwhite, while rich white people vote in far larger percentages.
And the data also make clear the primary motive for nonvoting among those demographic groups is not voter suppression but rather a belief election outcomes do not matter because both parties are corrupt or interested only in the lives of the wealthy.
Thus, those who try to demean, malign, and shame nonvoters are largely attacking poorer voters and voters of color, not the New York and California leftist trust-funders of their imagination.
ONE OF THE MOST comprehensive surveys of nonvoters is published by Pew Research Center on August 9, 2018. It summarizes its bottom-line finding this way, the exact opposite of what is typically claimed by wealthy television media stars and D.C. operatives: “Nonvoters are more likely to be younger, less educated, less affluent, and nonwhite.”
The Pew data on this issue are stark. Almost half of nonvoters in the 2016 presidential election are nonwhite, even though these people compose only one-fourth of the voting population. Even more extreme are the data on class:
More than half of nonvoters — 56% — are quite poor, making less than $30,000, even though that income group constitutes just over one-fourth of the voting population. The people who choose to vote are disproportionately privileged; those who are nonprivileged choose disproportionately not to vote.
As the Washington Post’s summary survey puts it:
“Pew’s data show almost half of the nonvoters are nonwhite and two-thirds are under age 50. More than half of those who don’t vote earn less than $30,000 a year; more than half of those who do vote are over age 50.”
Those who choose not to vote — either those who are registered but do not vote or those who simply do not register — constitute a huge number of Americans. Indeed, the Post highlights our size this way:
“about 30 percent of Americans are eligible to vote but decide not to, a higher percentage than the portion of the country who vote for either Trump or his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.”
While rich white people choose to vote in large numbers in the 2016 presidential election, low-income citizens and racial minorities compose a much larger portion of folks who choose not to vote:
In November, New York Times data journalist Nate Cohn analyzes data from a New York Times/Siena College survey of nonvoters in battleground states who abstain from voting both in 2016 and 2018. Cohn similarly describes these people as:
“disproportionately young, nonwhite and low-income,” adding “nonvoters are less likely to have graduated from a four-year college.”
In a separate article last July, Cohn notes “young and nonwhite and low-income voters are overrepresented among nonvoters,” and “young and nonwhite voters continue to vote at lower rates than older and white voters.”
This is true for the 2016 election and also the 2018 mid-term election, by which time Trump has been president for almost two full years. As Cohn reports, “young and nonwhite turnout is markedly higher than it was in 2014, but still lower than that of older and white voters.”
Pew finds “in the U.S., roughly six-in-ten adults are registered to vote.” Of them, “four-in-ten Americans who are eligible to vote do not do so in 2016.” This means 40% of eligible voters in 2016 are nonvoters. The sheer number alone — millions of Americans — should preclude any claim nonvoters are rich, white, and privileged people.
Even the voting preferences of the electorate are radically distorted by online “privilege” discourse:
28 percent of Hispanic people and 14 percent of black men voted for Trump in 2016
Rich white people tend to vote for the Democratic candidate, not the GOP candidate, while poorer white people vote for Trump:
“Whites with a four-year college degree or more education make up 30% of all validated voters. Among these voters, far more (55%) say they vote for Clinton than for Trump (38%).
Among the much larger group of white voters who have not completed college (44% of all voters), Trump wins by more than two-to-one (64% to 28%).”
TO DENY AGENCY to poorer and nonwhite nonvoters, it is sometimes claimed voter suppression efforts — rather than a cognizant and rational choice — is the primary factor explaining the behavior of poor and nonwhite nonvoters.
This is also false.
A separate Pew survey, in 2017, of people who are not registered to vote found exactly the opposite: people who refrain from participating in the electoral process largely do so because they are dissatisfied with the choices or believe voting will not change their lives.
As Pew puts it: “The unregistered are more likely to say they do not vote because they dislike politics or believe voting will not make a difference, while people who are registered but vote infrequently say they do not vote more often because they are not informed enough about the candidates or issues.”
Indeed, the Pew survey of unregistered voters finds the most common cause for not registering is we do not want to vote, and the most common reasons have nothing to do with voter suppression and everything to do with beliefs about the worthlessness of the elections.
As Pew put it, “forty-four percent of eligible unregistered individuals say they do not want to vote,” while “25 percent say they are unregistered because they have not been inspired by a candidate or issue.”
Pew emphasizes both unregistered voters as well as registered voters who choose not to vote broadly express dissatisfaction with, or indifference toward, the two major parties and election outcomes as their motives:
“The unregistered are more likely to indicate a broad distaste for the electoral system than registered individuals, who tend to give election-specific motives for nonvoting, such as disliking the candidates or not knowing enough about the issues.”
The Huffington Post, based on Pew data of people who choose not to vote in the 2018 midterm election, describes the primary motive for abstention this way:
“many Americans who dodn’t vote in this year’s midterm elections say they opt out due to a dislike of politics or a feeling their vote won’t matter.” And nonvoters, it notes, also “tend to skew younger, poorer, and less white than those who do turn out.”
All of these data demonstrate while GOP voter suppression efforts are both real and pernicious, nonvoting is overwhelmingly a conscious choice people make. Indeed, the Pew survey of midterm voters and nonvoters concludes while minority voters disgracefully experience longer lines than white voters, “about three-quarters of self-reported voters (76%) say it is ‘very easy’ for them to vote in the November elections. Another 16% say voting is ‘somewhat easy.’
While voter suppression is unquestionably a serious stain on U.S. political life and does impede voting by design, the overwhelming reason people stay home is due to cynicism toward or dissatisfaction with the political process and the choices they are presented.
As the Huffington Post explains about the 2018 midterm elections, “as a group, nonvoters also tend to be generally disengaged from public affairsand cynical about the government and their own roles in civic life. Nearly half of nonvoters in the most recent election say their personal dislike of politics plays at least a minor role in their decision not to vote.”
This Pew chart highlights how widespread this belief is among nonvoters:
Nonvoters, despite their large numbers, are rarely discussed in mainstream U.S. precincts because national media figures in cable news and Washington are overwhelmingly affluent and have little connection to or interest in us.
In large part, the omission is explained by the fact interrogating so many millions of Americans about why we choose not to vote would force the political and media class to grapple with the reason for this choice:
Namely, the widespread perception the political process and the two major parties are fundamentally corrupted and indifferent to all but a small sliver of privileged people. Confronting this problem and being forced to address it is far more difficult than creating a pleasant fiction to falsely maintain people who abstain from voting do so because of selfish, amoral racial and class privilege.
In those few instances when nonvoters are honestly examined by large media outlets, a much different picture emerges than the one typically disseminated by affluent media stars and D.C. political operatives.
One of the best and most thoughtful articles is a New York Times survey of African Americans in Milwaukee who choose not to vote in the 2016 election and, even knowing it helps Trump win Wisconsin and thus the presidency, do not regret it.
The Times explains “the  election is notable as much for the people who do not show up as it is for those who do. Nationally, about half of eligible voters do not cast ballots.” Wisconsin has its lowest turnout in 16 years.
The Times adds: “Milwaukee’s lowest-income neighborhoods offer one explanation for the turnout figures. Of the city’s 15 council districts, the decline in turnout from 2012 to 2016 in the five poorest is consistently much greater than the drop seen in more prosperous areas — accounting for half of the overall decline in turnout citywide.
The interviews the paper conducts with African Americans and other poor residents of Milwaukee who chose not to vote are illuminating.
People overwhelmingly say they did not regret their choice, even knowing Trump won, because they do not believe that the outcome of elections improves their lives, and do not believe that a victory by the Democratic Party would be meaningful for them.
One Milwaukee barber, Cedric Fleming, said in a quote representative of the survey: “I don’t feel bad. Milwaukee is tired. Both of them (Clinton and Trump) are terrible. They never do anything for us anyway.”
The Times quotes another Milwaukee barber as follows:
“I’m so numb,” says Jahn Toney, 45, who wrote in Mr. Sanders’ name as his vote. He says no president in his lifetime has done anything to improve the lives of black people, including Mr. Obama, whom he voted for twice. “It’s like I should have known this would happen. We’re worse off than before.”
That rationale for nonvoting — “both of them were terrible. They never do anything for us anyway” — is typically cast by media personalities and Washington operatives as the province of rich, white, privileged leftists. But that claim is a lie. The data makes overwhelmingly clear that those who make that choice are often those with the least amount of privilege who believe, with good reason, that both parties and the political process generally are constructed to have no interest in improving their lives.
It is crucial to understand who nonvoters are, and what their motives are for choosing to abstain, not only to prevent media figures and D.C. operatives from disseminating disinformation, but also because that understanding highlights what kinds of candidates can motivate the millions of nonvoters to go to the polls. As the New York Times’ Nate Cohn explained, the candidates most closely associated with the status quo are ones most likely to drive voters away from the polls, while those who appear to be outsiders who intend to deviate from bipartisan consensus are most likely to motivate them.
This is why Sanders has the greatest appeal among nonvoters when he is perceived as something other than a traditional Democrat:
When it comes to the candidates, Mr. Sanders shows relative strength among nonvoters: He has a 41 percent “very favorable” rating in the group, compared with 33 percent for Mr. Biden and 30 percent for Ms. Warren. This is at least in part because of Mr. Sanders’ longtime appeal to young voters.
Not only is Mr. Sanders’ favorability rating the best of these three candidates, but he is also the only Democrat whose favorability rating is stronger among nonvoting Democratic leaners than among those who have voted before. His outsider status and promise of fundamental change, without much focus on cultural issues, might offer at least one clue for how Democrats might appeal to these nonvoters, though it need not be the only one.
Polling already indicates Joe Biden faces a serious problem whereby even his supporters — to say nothing of nonvoters — have extremely low enthusiasm for his candidacy. He could certainly win, but it will not be because he motivates large numbers of nonvoters to go the polls.
Whatever else is true, those who make the choice to abstain from voting in presidential and midterm elections are overwhelmingly anything but “privileged.” The claim that they are is deliberate disinformation spread by the political and media elite class to suppress the reality of their own systemic failures when it comes to serving the needs of the vast majority of the population and to try to shame, rather than persuade, disaffected people to vote for their candidate.