Not even twenty-four hours have elapsed since Bernie Sanders announced that he was suspending his presidential run, and already a shaming campaign has been launched against those who are contemplating abstaining from voting due to dissatisfaction with the two major-party candidates. The premise invoked for this tactic is that only those who are sufficiently “privileged” have the luxury of choosing not to vote — meaning that 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 non-white Americans.
This tactic rests on a caricature: it is designed to suggest that 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 and ethnic minorities — understand that 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 non-white citizens.
But the problem with this claim is a rather significant one: it is based on the outright, demonstrable falsehood that 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 non-white, while rich whites vote in far larger percentages. And the data also makes clear that the primary motive for nonvoting among those demographic groups is not voter suppression but a belief that 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 non-voters 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 was published by Pew Research Center on August 9, 2018. It summarized its bottom-line finding this way, the exact opposite of what is typically claimed by wealthy television media stars and DC operatives: “nonvoters were more likely to be younger, less educated, less affluent and nonwhite.”
The Pew data on this issue is stark. Almost half of non-voters in the 2016 presidential election were non-white, even though they compose only one-fourth of the voting population. Even more extreme is the data on class: more than half of non-voters — 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 non-privileged choose disproportionately not to vote.
As the Washington Post’s summary of that survey put it: “Pew’s data shows that almost half of the nonvoters were nonwhite and two-thirds were under age 50. More than half of those who didn’t vote earned less than $30,000 a year; more than half of those who did vote were 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 highlighted their size this way: “about 30 percent of Americans were eligible to vote but decided not to, a higher percentage than the portion of the country who voted for either Trump or his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.” And while rich whites chose to vote in large numbers in the 2016 presidential election, lower-income citizens and racial minorities composed a much larger portion of those who chose not to vote.
In November, the New York Times’ data journalist Nate Cohn, analyzing data from a New York Times/Siena College survey of nonvoters in battleground states who abstained from voting both in 2016 and 2018, similarly described them as “disproportionately young, nonwhite and low-income,” adding that “nonvoters are less likely to have graduated from a four-year college.” In a separate article last July, Cohn noted that “young and nonwhite and low-income voters are overrepresented among nonvoters,” and “young and nonwhite voters continued to vote at lower rates than older and white voters.”
This was true not only for the 2016 election but also the 2018 mid-term election, by which time Trump had been president for almost two full years. As Cohn reported, “young and nonwhite turnout was markedly higher than it had been in 2014, but still lower than that of older and white voters.”
Pew found that “in the U.S., roughly six-in-ten adults are registered to vote.” Of them, “four-in-ten Americans who were eligible to vote did not do so in 2016.” That means 40% of eligible voters in 2016 were nonvoters. The sheer number alone — millions of Americans — should preclude any claim that non-voters are rich, white and privileged.
[Even the voting preferences of the electorate are radically distorted by online “privilege” discourse: aside from the fact that 28% of Hispanics and 14% of black men voted for Tump in 2016, rich whites voted for the Democratic candidate, not the GOP candidate, while poorer whites voted for Trump: “whites with a four-year college degree or more education made up 30% of all validated voters. Among these voters, far more (55%) said they voted for Clinton than for Trump (38%). Among the much larger group of white voters who had not completed college (44% of all voters), Trump won by more than two-to-one (64% to 28%).”]
To deny agency to poorer and non-white nonvoters, it is sometimes claimed that voter suppression efforts — rather than a cognizant and rational choice — is the primary factor explaining the behavior of poor and non-white nonvoters. That is also false.
A separate Pew survey, in 2017, of people who are not registered to vote found exactly the opposite: that 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 put it: “The unregistered were 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, that Pew survey of unregistered voters found that the most common cause for not registering is that they 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.”
And, Pew emphasized, 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 chose not to vote in the 2018 midterm election, described the primary motive for abstention this way: “many Americans who didn’t vote in this year’s midterm elections say they opted out due to a dislike of politics or a feeling their vote wouldn’t matter.” And nonvoters, it noted, also “tend to skew younger, poorer and less white than those who do turn out.”
All of this data demonstrates that, while GOP voter suppression efforts are both real and pernicious, nonvoting is overwhelmingly a choice. Indeed, the Pew survey of midterm voters and nonvoters concluded that, while minority voters disgracefully experience longer lines than white voters, “about three-quarters of self-reported voters (76%) say it was ‘very easy’ for them to vote in the November elections. Another 16% say voting was ‘somewhat easy.’”
While voter suppression is unquestionably a serious stain on U.S. political life that does (by design) impede voting, the overwhelming reason people stay home is due to cynicism toward or dissatisfaction with the political process and the choices they were presented. As the Huffington Post explained about the 2018 midterm elections, “as a group, nonvoters also tend to be generally disengaged from public affairs and cynical about the government and their own roles in civic life. Nearly half of nonvoters in the most recent election said their personal dislike of politics played at least a minor role in their decision not to vote.” The Pew chart highlights how widespread is this belief among nonvoters.
Non-voters, despite their large numbers, are rarely discussed in mainstream U.S. precincts. In part that is because national media figures in cable news and Washington are overwhelmingly affluent and have little connection to or interest in them.
But in large part, that omission is explained by the fact that interrogating why so many millions of Americans choose not to vote would force the political and media class to grapple with the reason for this choice: namely, the widespread perception that the political process and the two major parties are fundamentally corrupted and indifferent to all but a small sliver of privileged people. Confronting that problem and being forced to address it is far more difficult than creating a pleasant fiction that falsely maintains that 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 was a New York Times survey of African-Americans in Milwaukee who chose not to vote in the 2016 election and, even knowing that it helped Trump win Wisconsin and thus the presidency, did not regret it.
The Times explained that “the  election was notable as much for the people who did not show up, as for those who did. Nationally, about half of eligible voters did not cast ballots.” Wisconsin had its lowest turnout in sixteen years. The Times added:
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 was 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 conducted with African-Americans and other poor residents of Milwaukee who chose not to vote were illuminating. They overwhelmingly said 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 that was representative of the survey: “I don’t feel bad. Milwaukee is tired. Both of them [Clinton and Trump] were terrible. They never do anything for us anyway.”
The Times quoted another Milwaukee barber as follows:
“I’m so numb,” said Jahn Toney, 45, who had written in Mr. Sanders. He said no president in his lifetime had 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. That’s why Sanders, in 2019, had the greatest appeal among nonvoters when he was 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’s longtime appeal to young voters.
Not only is Mr. Sanders’s 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 that 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.