Nonvoters Removed From Government and Politics

By Michael M. Lazerow
Medill News Service

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Thirty-one-year-old Kathy Smith pulled a hot tray loaded with homemade chocolate chip cookies from the oven. She placed each cookie on a napkin and passed them out to the small group of residents that had gathered in the kitchen of the Washington State Soldiers’ Home in rural Orting, 20 miles southeast of Tacoma.

After driving more than an hour to spend half the day volunteering for the veterans, Smith would likely say that this Tuesday is just the same as any other.

To much of the United States, though, it was not.

Tuesdays like this come around every four years, and this year, on the day the 43rd president was to be elected, Kathy Smith wasn’t voting. In fact, she has never voted. She is not even registered.

“If you ask my opinion, I’d like Mickey Mouse to win,” she said. “He’s my idol.”

Dressed in a Seattle Mariners jacket and a sweatshirt adorned with the mug of her idol, Smith quickly changed the subject to lunch. She had some errands — including returning rented videos and grocery shopping — to do by 3:30 p.m., when she picks up her three children from school, so she decided to catch the barbecue beef tip lunch at the cafeteria on the Soldier’s Home grounds, where she laughed at the jokes of one vet and gossiped with another.

“Why don’t you vote, Kathy?” wondered one vet. “If you don’t, you’ve got no room to complain.”

Smith just smiled a crooked smile and tapped the edge of her cigarette into her ashtray. It is that aloofness — combined with a healthy dose of cynicism — that characterizes Alienated nonvoters like this Olympia, Wash., resident. Like most non-voters of her type, dubbed Alienated in a Medill News Service poll, Smith is angry at the government and removed from it — so far removed that she barely reads the newspaper and watches little television, including her local news coverage. As a result, she has come to expect nothing more from the government that broken promises and bravado speeches.

As early evening approached a cold, misty Olympia, Kathy Smith interrupted her dinner cooking to pick up her daughters from Girl Scouts. Polls had closed in some states already, and the returns hinted at an early victory for President Clinton, but the television remained off and Smith’s home was curiously quiet.

“I’ll end up finding out who won some way or another,” she said. “People are gonna be talking about it anyway. They’re gonna like it or they’re not gonna like it.”

Born in Colorado, Smith moved to Washington before her first birthday and has remained there ever since, so she considers the Evergreen State her home. She recently remarried after her divorce from her first husband of 11 years. She left high school two days after her 18th birthday, got married and moved to Idaho. Yet that wouldn’t last long. She quickly moved back to Washington after less than a year.

An only child, Smith said she is not close to her seven half-siblings, but she said she has always been close to her father. “It’s a good place to raise a family out here,” she said, referring in particular to the low crime rate in her hometown of Olympia. “Plus, winters aren’t too harsh and summers aren’t too hot.”

Smith extends her political life as well. She avoids conversations about politics whenever possible “because my father always told me that politics don’t mix well in some circles.”

A homemaker, she baby-sits three days a week in addition to her volunteer work every Tuesday. Each day begins at 5:30 a.m. and ends some time after nine. “Mondays are my free days,” she said with a laugh.

Smith considers crime an important issue, next to Medicare and child support, which she said she could speak about from personal experience. “I’ve learned a lot about it lately. My husband just found out he’s got a child” from a previous relationship.

Despite the personal stakes she feels in such contentious political issues, Smith finds no reason to vote. “Does it ever really count?” she asked.

To her, single votes do not carry the weight that decides an election. “Politicians are gonna do what they want to do anyway.” Elected officials rarely address the voters’ concerns, Smith believes, and if they’ve got the money, they don’t need the voters.

Like most Alienated voters, who comprise only 12 percent of likely nonvoters, according to the nationwide Medill poll conducted this summer, Smith chose not to participate not because she already felt her quality of life was high, but because she has lost faith in the political system. In fact, Smith says the country is on the wrong track and expresses little optimism in her family’s near future.

“I’d like to see the government work for people like me and like the residents back at the soldiers’ home.”

Much of what characterizes Smith’s detachment from politics is not new. Politicians have been blamed for breaking promises for years, but to people like Smith, it goes beyond the empty rhetoric.

The little people Smith relates to have opted out of the voting process because their needs simply are not addressed and they doubt they will be any time soon. Crime, for instance, is Smith’s biggest worry. She fears that the growing gang problem in nearby cities may meet her at her own doorstep. “Sometimes it gets to the point where you don’t even walk outside,” she said.

Yet the serenity of the Pacific northwest won’t let her go. Smith and her husband occasionally take weekend trips to the mountains or the Pacific. “Sometime we just go. We’ve driven to places we’ve never been to before,” she said.

As the polls closed along the West Coast, local newscasters began to realize that the president had solidified election to a second term, and they turned their attention to the congressional and gubernatorial races. Yet Smith and her family had no interest in their local elected officials either. Instead, they planned to watch a movie.

Democrat Gary Locke finally was elected governor of Washington late Tuesday night, becoming the nation’s first Chinese-American governor, but Kathy Smith remained indifferent. Her day had begun an hour before sunrise — just as the polls opened on the East Coast. As she saw her children off to school, spent time with veterans and ran errands, many of her peers across the United States were in the process of making their choices for president, governors, congressional members and more.

And 31-year-old Kathy Smith — feeling neglected and mistrustful — chose once again to remove herself from that process.

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