If you’re zooming from Tampa to Orlando on Interstate 4, you’ll pass, and probably ignore, Lakeland, Florida, population 100,710. When the town makes it into the national news, it’s usually thanks to a local who has made a bad choice, such as the 23-year-old who recently used the video platform Periscope to broadcast herself driving home drunk, or the 31-year-old who police said beat his brother in the face with a three-foot marijuana plant. But when it comes to presidential elections, Lakeland is significant: It occupies one of the purplest regions of one of the weightiest swing states in the country. In 2008 and 2012, John McCain and Mitt Romney both edged Barack Obama by seven points in Polk County—where Lakeland is located—but registered Democrats currently outnumber registered Republicans.
“The I-4 corridor swings Florida,” says Bruce Anderson, a political scientist at Florida Southern College. “And Lakeland is the heart of the I-4 corridor. Lakeland determines the outcome. If you’re looking for one button in the general election, it’s right here. You’re at Ground Zero.” Because of Lakeland’s reputation as a decisive spot, politicians and their spouses are diligent about stopping there, including, in recent years, Obama, Romney, McCain, Paul Ryan, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and Elizabeth Edwards.
This, however, is not a story about swing voters—those people who, when interviewed, reveal that every well-informed voter on Election Day will be canceled out by someone who thinks Ted Cruz is the star of Mission Impossible. It is about their less-publicized cousins: non-voters, a group that, in American politics, is usually either ignored or scorned.
There are, admittedly, some grounds for indifference or negativity toward the non-voter. I suspect one of the reasons we resent these abstainers is that, at some level, we view them as selfish. Voting, after all, involves some (small) measure of sacrifice: The “Downs Paradox,” based on a 1957 book by economist Anthony Downs, posits that, for any self-interested citizen, the cost of voting—the lines, the interruptions to the workday—are greater than any realistic individual benefits, given the miniscule chances that one vote will determine the outcome of a race. For those of us who, out of a sense of civic obligation, stand in line to toss a drop in the bucket for our candidate of choice, the idea that we should make much of an effort to listen or cater to the shirkers might seem preposterous.
Even so, I was curious. There are a lot of non-voters—more than two-fifths of the voting-eligible population—which means that together they wield considerable unused power. And I figured Lakeland was the ideal place to learn more about them. Balanced on the knife-edge of a major swing state, one in which a handful of people really did come close to swinging a whole election in 2000, it’s the kind of locale where one would expect the lure of voting to be especially strong. In such an environment, the person who stays home on Election Day must be a hard-core non-voter, someone who feels … well, what, exactly?
I ARRIVED IN Lakeland on Sunday afternoon, November 1. It was a few days before a local election, and, along the north-south artery of Florida Avenue, I saw signs advertising an incumbent city commissioner, Phillip Walker, and two challengers—one of whom seemed to have run and lost in just about every local race over the past decade, and another who looked to be 14 years old. I contacted the candidates in hopes of watching them try to rally the masses, but none responded.
How do you find a non-voter? The only technique I knew of was to ask—and ask, ask, and ask. Over the course of several days, I approached people in parks, on their porches, in their yards, in restaurants, at Walmart, at the DMV.
I soon learned that many people in Lakeland are well aware of their potential power. On Election Day in 2012, about 57 percent of eligible Americans turned out to vote. In Lakeland, that figure was 72 percent, identical to the general turnout in Florida. My interviews on a nature trail on the southern side of Lake Hollingsworth, a prosperous area near the Yacht Club, led only to voters. At the Walmart Supercenter, to the west, all the white shoppers and most of the black shoppers told me they voted.
Over at Hooters, which was honoring the troops that week by having wait staff wear insufficient clothing in a camouflage pattern, the customers were all older, mostly white, and mostly male—and they voted. I approached three young Hispanic-looking men, but they told me that they came from outside Lakeland and happened to be in an important meeting. This seemed believable. I found no non-voters there, and my club sandwich was disappointing.
At the historic Polk Theatre near Main Street, where there was a packed house for an event featuring Christian musicians, the kids exiting the show were voters or voters-to-be.
What I was starting to see up-close was something that the nationwide demographic data bears out: Voters are wealthier, more educated, and more white than non-voters. According to the Pew Research Center, while 72 percent of voters have a retirement account, only 37 percent of non-voters do. While 71 percent of voters have education beyond high school, only 45 percent of non-voters do. And while Latinos make up 15 percent of the population, they make up 6 percent of voters and 23 percent of non-voters.
In other words, as long as I was looking in middle-class or upper-class settings, chatting with middle-class or upper-class people, non-voters were nearly impossible to find. I was far likelier to be successful when I approached people who appeared to be working-class or poor (and who, when interviewed, turned out to be so).
Some of the first non-voters I found were working-class Hispanic women. (I met several people who were undocumented immigrants, but I didn’t interview them, since the question of “Why don’t you vote?” had an obvious answer.) Johem Santiago, a 26-year-old nursing student, said she’d like to see more jobs, better schools, and better protection for religious people, but she didn’t think voting made any difference. Jackeline Rivera, who’d lived in Lakeland for three years, said she worried about supporting her kids and protecting them, especially from pedophiles, but “I don’t believe any human can change the world.” Virginia Rivera (no relation) said she voted for Obama in 2008 but hadn’t voted since; she said “maybe” to voting again but also said she didn’t know what she cared about politically. I spoke to one middle-aged couple, Juan and Sylvia Sonera, who were faithful voters, but Sylvia’s mother, whom they were visiting, hadn’t voted since she moved here from Puerto Rico decades ago. You might say these non-voters viewed Washington in the same way others view weather—as something pleasant or unpleasant but either way uncontrollable.
Another type of non-voter who came up again and again: the Floridian with a felony conviction. Florida has one of the harshest laws in the nation regarding ex-convicts, depriving most felons of the vote for life. The rule affects one-in-10 Floridians of voting age—about 1.5 million people. Chad Fox, a young white man in Munn Park in the center of town, had gone to jail for meth production. He said he wished he could vote, and if he did, he’d vote Republican. Next to him was a friend, a young white woman with her child, getting some sun in the park. She, too, could no longer vote because of a felony. At the service station where I bought Payday candy bars and gum at night, the lady behind the counter said she was a felon. Lori Edwards, the Polk supervisor of elections, told me that ex-convicts visit her office regularly to plead for a restoration of full civil rights, something only the state’s Board of Executive Clemency can grant. “They come in here and tell me what they’re doing to turn their lives around and how important voting is to them,” Edwards said. “It’s years and years and years of waiting and paperwork.”
ON TUESDAY AFTERNOON, Election Day, I drove to Chestnut Woods Drive, a street with a couple dozen single-story houses—some brick, others wood or stucco—bounded on one end by a cul-de-sac. It is a notoriously crime-plagued location, and drugs are an economic staple. Meeting me there were three members of an initiative called Boots on the Ground—a group of African-American women from a local church who each week march up and down Chestnut Woods Drive, loudly singing and praying, with the aim of bringing peace to the area.
Group founder Debbie Crumbley had agreed to come out to help introduce me to residents, and she had brought two others with her—Phyllis Williams and Cynthia Hailey. All three had dressed for the occasion, sporting camouflage fatigues and black combat boots, intended to signal war-like intensity of mission. We parked at one end of the street, near an abandoned car tire, and headed over toward two black women standing in front of a nearby house.
“Good to see y’all,” called Crumbley to them. “Y’all doin’ all right?”
“Struggling,” said the older woman, who had short hair and a weathered face. Her name was Annie Young, and her lips were clenched in disgust. “This new landlord. He’s nasty.” Young’s house was falling into disrepair, with closet doors coming off, pipes leaking, and air conditioners breaking. Her landlord was refusing to fix it, accusing her of failing to pay rent. “I say, ‘You never had to run me down for my money.’ But he been harassin’ me and harassin’ me ever since.”
After a short discussion, Crumbley generously launched into a segue for my benefit. “But you know sometimes the people we vote for in office, sometimes they have to be the voice for us on certain things,” she said, turning Young’s attention to me. “Let me introduce you to somebody.”
Learning I was a journalist, Young told me she’d love to vote, if she could. She was a felon. “I don’t know how long you got to be out of the prison to vote,” she said. “All the drugs, all the shooting, to get the drugs out of here, that’s what I’d vote for. Sometimes I be scared to walk to my door at night.”
I asked the younger woman, Young’s daughter, Angela Williams, if she voted. “What for?” she answered. She didn’t care to elaborate. “I just don’t.” What things about life did she want to see changed? “I don’t wanna be here,” she said.
The school bus was due, and up the street came two young women to meet their children. Minerva Perrin, 23, told me she planned to vote but never had done so. I asked if she was a Democrat or Republican. “I don’t know if I’m either,” she said. “I really don’t know what I am.” The other woman, Latice Fisher, 30, who wore her hair in fine braids, said, “I don’t want to vote. I don’t like to vote. Anytime I go get my ID, I say, ‘I don’t wanna vote.’ ” Why? “I feel they gonna stick us with somebody anyway, so just let ’em do what they do, and I just go along.” But, she added, gesturing toward the street, “If you asked me to vote to knock this down, you got my vote. I’d be the first voter.”
Across the street, on a porch, sat a lean, elderly woman with her hair pulled severely back and a cigarette in hand. Next to her was an urn filled with butts. Her name was Linda Henry, and she voted, she said, because “look at all the years we weren’t able to vote.” But the young people on her street didn’t vote. “I used to go around trying to lead the younger generation, but it got a little hard, even with praying,” she said.
A few doors down, sitting on a crate in his driveway, was a gray-haired, quiet man in a navy work shirt. His name was Arthur Payne, and he’d worked for years driving a skid-steer loader. Payne used as few words as possible and looked at me with incredulity when I asked if he voted. “I say who wins, wins,” he said. What did he care about—what would he want to change? He was quiet. “I’d like to see me do better than I’m doing,” he eventually said. “I know that’ll never happen.” Was there nothing he could do to shape our politics? “No,” he said. “The world’s gonna do what it’s gonna do.”
As we walked away, Phyllis Williams began to dab her eyes. “Sorry, stuff like that bothers me, it’s just too sad,” she said. “You have to—I don’t know. Life can beat you so hard for so long you just give up. Which is what he’s done. He’s actually given up.”
The day was hot, and people sat outdoors. One young man sat in a chair in the shade, playing with his phone, looking like he wanted to be left alone. When Crumbley joked with him about games on his phone, though, he flashed a grin. “You’re a reporter?” he asked me. “So people will listen to your voice? Can you tell them to put the speed bumps out here? So many kids out here, and people are speeding up and down, up and down.”
Well, I said, this got to the idea of voting. Why not pressure your councilman? He said he had a felony on his record. No one was going to listen.
Nearby sat a group of older men playing dominoes around a table in a driveway. Some said they voted, but one, a middle-aged man named Eugene Waring, said he didn’t, offering the same resignation that I’d heard from so many others. “It don’t mean nothing to me,” he said. “It gonna be the same no matter what. They gonna do what they do.”
When we knocked on the door of a small house with a garden out front, an elderly white woman, whose name was Laura Tyler, answered it, after shooing two dogs out of the way. She’d gotten divorced and was forced to sell a house in a wealthy part of town, buying this one in a hurry in order to have a place to live with a housemate. On a block with high crime and few white residents, she said she’d felt unsafe at first, but people there seemed to look out for her. “I don’t know if anybody here does vote. That’s why I decided to wear this,” she said, pointing to an “I Voted” sticker on her shirt. “If they don’t vote, things aren’t gonna change.”
One theory about non-voters holds that they are fundamentally content. “Americans are voluble complainers but are mostly comfortable,” wrote columnist George Will in 2012, laying out this line of thought. “The stakes of politics are agreeably low because constitutional rights and other essential elements of happiness are not menaced by elections.” I did not bring up Will’s theory with the non-voters of Chestnut Woods Drive.
IN THE WEALTHY southern section of Lakeland, presidential candidate Ben Carson was due for a promotional sales appearance at Books-A-Million. His bus rolled into a lot and parked outside the store, as hundreds of people stood in line to get their books signed. Most were middle-aged and white, though a fair number were black or Latino. What they appeared to have in common was not race but class—middle, upper-middle, upper. People wore new eyewear and button-down shirts and generally crisp, pressed clothing.
I walked down the lines calling out for non-voters, looking for the non-participant who might have been inspired by Ben Carson to get involved for the first time. “Anyone here normally a non-voter?” I asked, walking slowly from the front to the back of the line. “Hi there. Anyone here normally a non-voter? Anyone? No?”
“You’ve got to vote,” said Griselda Valdes, a voluble and merry middle-aged Cuban-American woman who described Carson as her “imaginary husband.” (She clarified: “He doesn’t know it. My husband does.”) Next to Valdes was her daughter, in her 20s, who focused on her iPhone and glanced occasionally at her mother with affectionate mortification. Valdes said she was pro-life and pro-business, recalling a teaching moment from when her daughter was 12 and saw a broadcast about a rapper who had a house with 18 bathrooms. “And out of my dear daughter’s mouth came out, ‘That’s not fair,’ ” Valdes said. “Oh my God! That’s not fair? He can have a 180 bathrooms if he made his money from rapping and working his butt off. This is capitalism. You want your 180 bathrooms, you freakin’ get your 180 bathrooms.”
The contrast between this scene and Chestnut Woods Drive was a lot to take in, and I needed a place to think. I headed back to Hooters. This time, it was less crowded and younger. At the end of the bar sat a lean, middle-aged white male in a baseball cap nursing a beer. He often grimaced when he spoke, and it took me a moment to realize it was nothing personal. His name was Jerry Shauberger, and he was a non-voter who felt politicians “talk a lot of shit.” He’d been in the service for 20 years, including a stint in the first Gulf War, and he felt president after president had let down the military. In the 1990s, he’d worked in construction, but he eventually stopped being able to get jobs, because employers were hiring unauthorized workers and paying them half the price. Now he was on disability, just over $700 a month, going on five years, after becoming partially paralyzed on his left side. He’d moved in with his uncle. The only candidate he felt talked any sense was Donald Trump, “who doesn’t walk around the issues, says what’s on his mind.” He said a Trump nomination would make him consider a trip to the voting booth.
At the other end of the bar sat a Marine Corps veteran named Bobby Beote. He’d also served in the Gulf War, which had left him with severe stomach problems and other ailments—related to what is now known as Gulf War Syndrome—ever since. He had a full-time job at a recycling company, and he was receiving disability from the federal government for his war-related illness. Like Shauberger, Beote, too, wanted to see more done for the military, and he offered an informed take on the news. Still, while he said he kind of liked Trump, he didn’t see himself voting. Government, he said, was “crooked from the bottom up.”
During our interview, the bartender, Courtney, a 22-year-old white woman outfitted in the military camouflage shorts, broke in. “He’s eating,” she protested. “Interview me. I’ve got nothing to do.”
Courtney, whose last name was Reese, said she’d registered to vote because she’d been cajoled into it by the lady at the DMV. “She said, ‘Meh, meh, meh, what about the world?’ ” said Reese. “I was like, ‘Fucking sign me up. Whatever.’ ” Reese said she had no intention of going to the polls: “No matter what, I have to pay a shit-ton, and I get nothing back.” She resented being forced to pay $180 for health insurance each month. What if she got hit by a bus? “If I get hit by a bus, which I have, when I was 14, I sued the fuck out of them and they paid for everything,” she said. I asked if she would like a candidate who promised to lower taxes. She replied, “It wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
ON WEDNESDAY, we learned that Phillip Walker had won reelection to the City Commission. I’d stopped by some polling stations on Tuesday to see if anyone was there, but I saw only election workers. Since most Americans are guilty of non-participation in local politics, Lakeland non-voters were nothing unusual in this respect.
My plan for the day, grim in the extreme, was to park myself for many hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles. This would ensure a steady influx of people from all demographic and economic groups. The Lakeland DMV is housed in an attractive Art Deco building, but the interior was one of drab pastels and waiting-room chairs. I settled in.
As the day went on and I introduced myself to person after person, the patterns were looking familiar. Everyone who looked middle-class or wealthier—crisper clothes, fancier hair, sharper eyewear—voted. People who looked working-class voted less reliably. Latinos and Asians (although I came across only two of the latter, both non-voters) seemed to vote least, sometimes because they were not U.S. citizens, other times because they seemed disconnected from politics. Among the Hispanic U.S. citizens I met, one, who had moved to Florida from Honduras 12 years ago, said he didn’t think his vote would change anything. Another, a car detailer, said that if he voted, he’d be a Republican, because that’s what his dad had told him to be; he indicated he might vote sometime, but he didn’t seem in a hurry.
I spoke to a black teenager who said he didn’t intend to vote because we hadn’t had a strong leader since JFK and he didn’t trust any of the current candidates. What he wanted to see was a “bigger army,” legalized marijuana, and dominance in the production of oil. I spoke to a 24-year-old white woman who worked two full-time jobs, including one at KFC, at $8.25 an hour. She said she was a Republican by upbringing but didn’t vote because she was “just not that into all that stuff.” She explained that what bothered her were stories of the Department of Children and Families placing kids with abusers but taking away kids from mothers over marijuana possession. “I think that’s bullcrap,” she said. I spoke to a white 21-year-old with a heart condition who said he wanted a president who’d stop getting us into wars, as three of his friends had gotten killed in Iraq, but he didn’t intend to vote, because nothing, he felt, could rein in U.S. foreign intervention. “I don’t think any of them actually truly want to get all the way out,” he said.
It was clear by now that the story of non-voting, at least in a place like Lakeland, was a story of poverty—both of money and of hope. The tribulations of the non-voter were especially vivid in the case of Denise Cohagan, a white 48-year-old in blouse and slacks with long brown hair and a scar running down the side of her throat. She’d had repeated surgeries on her neck, and she seemed to need to shift regularly in her chair. “I feel like right now it’s such a mess that it doesn’t matter who is in charge,” she said, with a laugh. “They have a challenge.”
Cohagan had a half-time job in a pain-management clinic. The broken neck had been sustained during an argument with her ex-boyfriend, she said. The story got darker and darker: She’d been caught with several grams of marijuana (and charged with a misdemeanor—not a felony); she’d lost custody of her children as a result; she’d waited years in vain for Section 8 housing; she’d recently taken in one of her children, now a mother herself. But her manner was rarely self-pitying. “I walk three miles at least three times a week,” she said at one point. “Life is a gift.”
Among the financial obligations she had each month were $700 in rent, $130 in electric bills, $50 for her cell phone, $106 for insurance payments on a car that someone had given her, and then food and clothing. She can cover these with $793 in disability and her part-time job, which nets her an extra $140 a week after taxes, albeit at the expense of $160 a month in food stamps. But her upcoming surgery would take her out of the workforce and back down to $793 a month.
“Then I go back in the hole again,” she said.
How could she hold onto her apartment?
“I have a very gracious landlord right now.”
I returned to the subject of political involvement. “I think they have their plan upstairs, and us little people down here don’t really matter to them,” she said. “I was glad that Obama won, only because it was a minority, you know, something different. Now, I don’t know.”
She said she liked one president: Bill Clinton. “That’s because he got me my Social Security,” Cohagan said. “I struggled for six or seven years. Three little girls looking at me saying, ‘Mom, what are we going to do?’ And my mom actually wrote President Clinton, and that was the end of October, and before Thanksgiving I got a letter saying we have checked into your situation, and you’ll be hearing from Social Security. I heard from them within three days.”
I asked how she came to the conviction that “upstairs” had nothing to do with her life, considering she believed that a U.S. president had intervened on her behalf. “Maybe I’m not fair on it,” she said. “But when you’re sick, or you’re on disability, your everyday struggle is enough. What’s going on in the big world is sometimes too much to handle.”
IN 1980, political scientists Raymond Wolfinger and Steven Rosenstone published an influential book called Who Votes? Examining survey data and recent presidential election results, they concluded that, on most political issues, voters showed the same distribution of opinions as non-voters. They also inferred, based on these similarities of opinion, that the participation of a higher number of voters would have been unlikely to affect which candidate won in recent elections. This finding has been echoed in the work of scholars examining subsequent elections. Many political scientists have therefore come to see non-voting as a phenomenon of minimal consequence.
Challenging this consensus, however, is a 2013 book by political scientists Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler. They argue that Wolfinger and Rosenstone, and those making similar arguments about election outcomes, omitted an important factor: the influence of voters on the policy priorities of the candidates who win. As everyone knows, a president wins office by appealing—sometimes pandering—to certain blocs of voters based on their pet issues, and they face little pressure to heed the views of non-voters. Leighley and Nagler write that “if voters’ preferences for the Democrat are based on the promise of liberal social policies, and non-voters’ preferences for the Democrat are based on the promise of liberal economic policies, then the non-voters are going to suffer for staying home.” To put it another way, if everyone voted, you might get Hillary Clinton either way, but the versions of her would differ. As the authors explain, “who votes matters for the most basic outcome of politics: who gets what.”
And voters and non-voters tend to disagree in one especially important realm: economics. As became all too clear to me in Lakeland, non-voters and voters have a different socioeconomic profile, and so it should be no surprise that they have different views on where the money should go. In 2010, Pew found that likely voters preferred “a smaller government providing fewer services,” by 61 to 32 percent, while non-voters preferred the opposite, “a bigger government providing more services,” by 52 to 39 percent.
I MADE SOME final stops in a low-income neighborhood of small residences, trailer-like in size. Outside one was a thin, elderly white man who was walking toward his front door with a plastic grocery bag in his hand. His name was William Holt, age 69, and he said he hadn’t voted in over 30 years, after getting in trouble over child support. (When I tried to understand more about the alleged relationship between his disenfranchisement and delinquent child support, Holt seemed unable to clarify things.) His accent, spoken in a gentle voice, was one of the deep South; he was born and raised in Lakeland. He said he liked Donald Trump, because “he tells it like it is,” but he didn’t follow politics that closely. He’d worked around the mines (phosphate, ore) starting at age 15 and then worked 25 years as a painter, until being afflicted with brain cancer at age 59. “I went on SSI,” he said. “Then they put me on Social Security but they didn’t give me that much raise.” His current monthly check was $783, plus $62 in food stamps. The house, a modest trailer-like structure, was his mother’s.
I asked how he covered his costs. “Struggle. Buy chips. Eat them at night,” he said, pointing to a large bag of tortilla chips in his grocery bag. “Go down and get me a can of Spam. Got my food stamps. When they run out, I don’t eat that much right now.” He felt welfare allocations favored his black neighbors, with young mothers getting unfair amounts in food stamps. Then he changed the topic. “I heard we was in billion-dollar debt to China,” he said. “You know anything about that?” I said it was more like a trillion. He asked why the United States would let that happen.
Several doors down, in a yard enclosed by a chain-link fence, was a married white couple, Norma and Richard Earley, both in their late 40s. Richard, with a white goatee and hair in a ponytail, had been out of the workforce since the age of 22, when he’d gone on disability after an automobile transmission had fallen on his spine and shattered nine vertebrae. Norma, shorter and broader, spoke in a low and husky voice. “They all say, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that, and when they get in the White House, they do nothing,” Norma said. Although Richard said he’d liked Bill Clinton and now supported Hillary Clinton, neither he nor his wife voted.
Both Earleys said they wanted to see more generous disability benefits, better immigration enforcement, and restored rights to former felons. That’s when it emerged that Norma was among this latter group, released from prison 11 years ago, which is why she couldn’t vote. Her stint in prison also made her hard to employ, and she felt she deserved another chance in society. She worked “everything from banquets to bartending to cashiering,” thanks to a temp service. “I’m grateful for that,” she said. “But I’ll be lucky if I work three days a week. That’s not enough to survive on.” Richard got $752 a month in disability. They had two kids living at home. Meanwhile, she felt people could come across the border illegally and take similar jobs, while Washington politicians looked the other way. “They’re forgetting us,” she said.
WHILE LAKELAND ATTRACTS plenty of campaigning politicians, none of the non-voters I interviewed recounted ever being approached by anyone for their votes—and I asked many of them about this. (The residents of Chestnut Woods claimed that no city commissioner had ever paid a visit to their street.) Nor is activating non-voters something that politicians speak of often. After all, if adding new voters to the mix is unlikely to affect election outcomes, why spend resources cultivating them, especially if it might mean adjusting your policy priorities? You risk disturbing a delicate coalition. “What do politicians have to gain by this?” asks Ellen Shearer, a Northwestern University journalism professor who has studied non-voters since 1996. “I don’t like to sound cynical, but they know their voters. They know how certain groups will act. They don’t know their non-voters.”
The results feed on themselves. The less politicians see any reason to try to appeal to non-voters, the less non-voters see any reason to prefer one over another. “The lowest income group sees no difference between Republican and Democratic candidates,” says Leighley. “That bottom 20 percent—they’re out of the system. They are disconnected from the system, and the system has disconnected from them. Do we blame them? Or does it have to do with how campaigns are run? Or the nature of the media and how campaigns are covered? We have no answers to that.”
Nor do I. Should we have compulsory voting, as exists in Australia or Belgium? There’s a decent case for it, but coercion of that sort seems contrary to American notions of liberty, including my own. Making it easier to vote is the aim of many activists, but in most places voting is pretty easy. In many states, you can vote early, vote absentee, vote by mail, register at the DMV, and show up without ID. There aren’t many barriers left to be lowered.
I do know that I came to detest Florida’s lifetime voting ban on felons—especially in an age when poor people are imprisoned for the kind of drug crimes that rarely seem to catch up with rich people. Those I interviewed sometimes asked me how long it would take for them to get their rights restored, and I had to answer it might be a long time, if ever. (Offenders must wait at least five years to apply for a restoration of their rights, and as of earlier this year, there was an enormous backlog.) Kentucky’s governor recently restored voting rights to felons in his state who had served their time, leaving Florida and Iowa as the only states with this vindictive policy. Time and again, I heard from people who seemed humiliated to be excluded. They said you ought to get a second chance at citizenship once you’ve done your time. It’s pretty hard to disagree.
I can’t deny that many of these non-voters were minimally educated and poorly informed. One could argue, and some writers and scholars have, that it’s for the best for everyone, including non-voters, if they continue to stay far from a ballot. But even a patronizing case like this would be more persuasive in a society that had prevailing norms of noblesse oblige, norms that say we must look out for our less fortunate fellow citizens. The days of such norms, if they ever held sway, are now remote. Who is looking out for Annie Young, Denise Cohagan, or William Holt?
In a nation of people living in bubbles, of opinion-makers talking mainly to one another, the views and lives of non-voters are about the furthest thing from the national political agenda. The voices of right and left prefer to clash in the culture wars—about sex, race, religion—all of which promise more exhilaration than fights over disability benefits and housing allocation and food stamps. Yes, voting is pretty easy for most of us, and many non-voters are flawed and irresponsible. But they are fellow Americans, and many of them seem to be stuck on the sidelines of a rough game in which they feel they have little stake, other than a justified fear of getting hit by the ball. For many people, non-voting is another way of saying: America is not working out for me. I wish America had a better reply.