On November 5, Bill Clinton or Bob Dole will be elected President of the United States. Assuming that the three-decade trend of declining voter turnout continues, their contest will be decided by roughly half of the eligible electorate. More than 88 million Americans will not bother to vote. Many of them will be like Jason Caldwell, a 29-year-old roofer from suburban Kansas city who conventional wisdom suggests should vote.
Caldwell is certainly no stranger to political activism. He works on the campaigns of his favorite local candidates, helping to rally support by passing out bumper stickers and yard signs. He actively follows his Congressman’s voting record and regularly fires off letters to register his opinions. But Jason made a conscious choice not to vote in the 1992 presidential and congressional elections, and he’s not sure that he’ll voter this November. “I didn’t like any of the candidates, and I’m not going to vote for someone I don’t believe in,” he said.
Shawn Curtis, 24, lives with his mother, stepfather, and girlfriend in Laguna Niguel, California. He watches a television newscast four or five nights each week and reads the newspaper daily. He has a generally favorable view of both the Republican and Democratic parties, although he says he feels closer to the Democrats because, “I’m not into the anti-abortion stuff.”
Curtis also chose not to vote in 1992 because, as he put it, “I just didn’t think it [voting] made a difference either way. I wasn’t really interested.” He says the only thing that could get him to the polls this November would be a close election, but since he expects President Clinton to win reelection easily he probably won’t vote.
The last time Terril Printy voted for president she got so nervous that she pulled the wrong handle. It was 1988, and the lifelong Republican accidentally cast her vote for Democrat Michael Dukakis. The experience was so horrifying she hasn’t voted since. “Experience has taught me a lesson,” the 49-year-old resident of Montrose, Iowa noted. “Even when we vote, we have no control over what’s going on in government.”
Kelly Michael Smith only watches the news when he can’t find a good baseball or football game on TV. “I love my Mets, and the 49ers are the best,” explained the 39-year-old single father from Dayton, Washington.
Smith occasionally picks up a copy of his local newspaper, but between working various odd jobs, taking care of his 7-year-old son Skylar, and tracking the Mets and 49ers, he doesn’t have time to monitor either local or national politics. “I’m too busy trying to survive,” he laments.
Although Smith has lived in the same house for more than two years, he is not registered to vote. And while his search for work has temporarily taken him to California, South Dakota, and Arizona at different times over that time span, he doesn’t view his mobility as the major impediment to registering. “I’ve always had it in my mind that I should,” he said. “I might just do it this year, but I’ve got so much going on right now.”
Maralynn McDonald, a 69-year-old resident of Oceanside, California, can no longer remember the last time she voted, although she can tell you that the last president she trusted was John F. Kennedy. Since she doesn’t like her current alternatives, she has already decided against voting this year. “It’s discouraging when you find out how [politicians] actually live and fool around and all that stuff,” she complains. “They make it sound like they’re trying to do something, but they never actually do.”
Sometime shortly after September 1, every major news organization that conducts public opinion polls will begin making a concerted effort to identify these likely nonvoters and exclude them from their surveys. Nonvoters will be all but forgotten until November 6, when scholars and political pundits alike will begin asking the quadrennial question: Can democracy survive without the active participation of half its members?
Medill Journalism School and WTTW Television in Chicago set out to answer that question, at least in part. Working with the Campaign Study Group, Medill and WTTW identified 1,001 people who are not likely to vote this November and asked them a series of questions designed to provide demographic, political, and information-consumption profiles of the non-voting population. We discovered that while there is some truth in the stereotypical view of the nonvoter, it is a mistake to view these electoral non-participants as a monolith if one’s goal is to maximize voting. There are, in fact, five distinct groups of nonvoters who view government, the political parties, politicians, and the news very differently.