The Apathy Myth

What Really Keeps 100 million Americans From Voting

If you're not going to vote next week, you'll have plenty of company. About 100 million others probably won't. Considering that 50 million of them have not even registered—many millions because they can't—the next president could be elected by just a quarter of voting-age Americans.

Not surprisingly, this election season comes with a deluge of lectures about voter apathy. The media fret over it, and so do candidates (while back at the campaign office, their consultants revel in having to target so few). Certainly there are those people who find politics a snore. But 100 million of them? It's hard to believe so many couldn't care less about money, housing, health care.

illustration by Ferruccio Sardilla

An estimated one in eight black men will not be able to vote this November because of a previous or current felony conviction.

The staggering numbers suggest something stronger than apathy is at work. Perhaps the problem is exclusion.

In fact, the electoral system actually or effectively shuts out tens of millions of immigrants, people of color, the working poor—those whose lives hinge more than most on the policies leaders make. The exclusiveness of the process is reflected in proposals targeted at the narrowly defined "likely voter," who seemingly is a middle-class, family-minded Midwesterner. With little of relevance on offer, it's no wonder that some 50 million adults—from community activists to Christian fundamentalists—decided last presidential cycle that voting was not going to be their means to an end.

Even though the current presidential contest is the closest in decades, and even with Ralph Nader stirring up rare third-party enthusiasm, election experts predict a voter turnout no higher than in 1996, when 49 percent of those registered went to the polls. Those voters tended to be older, wealthier, and whiter.

While only 8 percent of the total vote in 1996 came from 18- to 24-year-olds, voters age 45 and over accounted for 54 percent. Voter turnout decreased steadily with income, with voters from households making $50,000 or more in annual income voting at about 70 percent and those from incomes of $10,000 or less turning out 40 percent of the time or less. According to census figures, 60 percent of whites, 51 percent of blacks, 27 percent of Hispanics, and 26 percent of Asians voted in 1996.

It took only 24 percent of U.S. adults to reelect Bill Clinton.

And then there are the millions who, even if they desperately want to, can't vote. Recent estimates indicate that about 10.5 million documented and 5.5 million undocumented immigrants live in this country. Like any U.S. resident, they will be affected by presidential decisions on numerous issues—education, foreign policy, health care. But alas, only citizens can vote.

"It's taxation without representation," declares Dulce Reyes of the New York Immigration Coalition, likening the current situation—where immigrants pay taxes, work, and otherwise contribute to U.S. society, but cannot vote—to the problem that sparked the Boston Tea Party and fueled a revolutionary war. In 1997, immigrants paid approximately $133 billion in federal and local taxes; immigrant families are estimated to pay $80,000 more in taxes over a lifetime than they receive in benefits. Arnoldo Garcia of California's National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights says that, in his state, a larger immigrant vote would have had a great impact on recent referenda eradicating affirmative action and toughening juvenile crime laws.

Also excluded from voting are nearly all of the nation's convicted felons. In this area the U.S. hardly sets the global standard for democracy, argues Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project. No other democratic nation disenfranchises felons for life, but 13 U.S. states do. The law differs from state to state, but in 47 of them, felons can't vote in prison. In most states, they can't vote while on probation or parole.

The impact of these felon voting restrictions, according to Mauer, goes beyond the individual and raises concerns about community empowerment and minority participation. While the 3.9 million affected represent only 2 percent of the national voting-age population, the 1.4 million black men in that group represent 13 percent of the black male population nationally. One in eight black men will not be able to vote this November because of a previous or current felony conviction, Mauer estimates.

The 100- to 200-year-old laws mean felons have not been able to weigh in on drug laws, the death penalty, and other issues not only relevant to the prison population but also disproportionately affecting racial minorities. While he doubts that the restrictions are "a conspiracy to disempower blacks," Mauer says the laws are considered by some to be a holdover from post-Reconstruction Jim Crow days, when, in some Southern states, crimes most likely to be committed by blacks carried special punishments including disenfranchisement. The government rationalization for the restrictions is, "If you violate the country's norms, you lose certain rights," Mauer explains. But, he argues, jail time is supposed to be the punishment for such violations.

Residents of Puerto Rico also cannot vote. They don't pay federal taxes, but they can be drafted to serve in the U.S. military. And Puerto Ricans who have been living and voting in the States, but who temporarily relocate to the island, cannot vote by absentee ballot, unlike other U.S. residents traveling abroad.

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