The Apathy Myth

What Really Keeps 100 million Americans From Voting

But even for those theoretically allowed to vote, it's often tough in practice. Even naturalized immigrants can be treated like unwelcome outsiders on Election Day, according to Reyes from the New York Immigration Coalition. Her organization has tracked instances where registered immigrants have been harassed at the polls for having foreign-sounding names or difficulties with English, or for being unfamiliar with polling-site procedure. Couple xenophobia with some immigrants' fear of institutions of power, stemming from political situations in native countries, and you've got a population less likely to vote, says Garcia of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

For anyone without economic or geographic stability, voting can also be uncertain. Low turnout among poorer Americans not only reflects dissatisfaction with campaign messages perennially geared toward the mythic middle class, but also shows how preoccupying day-to-day survival can be, according to advocates for the poor. Following politics and even the simple act of voting require time, energy, and opportunity, which can't be spared in many working families. Getting time off to vote, Reyes points out, "is not likely in a sweatshop environment."

The nation's approximately 1.5 million homeless adults also face logistical obstacles to voting, even if they are legally permitted to do so. Citing a place of residence in order to register is difficult. And, says Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, "what it costs in terms of time if you're poor and homeless in New York is unbelievable." Waiting on agency lines, searching for housing or employment, and merely keeping up the daily struggle to find food and safety can push political participation low on the list.

illustration by Ferruccio Sardilla

With so many U.S. residents—just the noncitizens and felons total about 20 million—effectively excluded, candidates can cater to a narrow but traditionally decisive segment of likely voters. But promises aimed at these older, richer Americans tend to turn off younger adults, minority citizens, and, apparently, millions of others.

If you're young in this country, both mainstream Rock the Vote types and radical grassroots organizers agree, national politics leaves you cold. Therefore, young adults vote at far lower rates than any other age group.

"It's not that they don't know, and it's not that they're apathetic," insists Sandra Barros of the Student Liberation Action Movement, a grassroots youth organization based in New York. "They just don't trust what they're told by a corporate-sponsored media and politicians." Julia Cohen, executive director of Youth Vote 2000, a national coalition of get-out-the-youth-vote efforts, says, "This is the most media-targeted generation in humankind. They know when they're being sold to." Hence the popularity of Nader among young voters, for his seeming to eschew corporate media and value individual supporters.

But being media-savvy also means knowing when you're being ignored. Twenty-five-year-old Brent McGoldrick of Third Millennium, a nonpartisan young-voter advocacy group, slams campaigns for failing to target his peers with ads, rallies, and, above all, relevant proposals. Resonant issues might be education—"not K through 12"—funding, health insurance for young adults, who are typically the least-insured group, and environmental preservation. When campaigns ignore young voters, he says, those voters ignore the campaigns, resulting in a cycle of mutual indifference he has for this year dubbed "Neglection 2000." If, like the majority of 18-to-24-year-olds, you don't go to college, where voter education drives are common, you're even farther off the map, according to Cohen.

Dissatisfaction with the electoral options is also turning away some of the nation's most politically involved. For some ardent community activists, getting out the vote for president not only seems like a waste of valuable political energy but also, given the bipartisan resolve to cut welfare rolls and execute convicts, runs counter to their notions of social justice.

Lumumba Bandele, a New Afrikan Nationalist and an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in New York, argues that black Americans exist in a colonized state inside the larger, elite-run America. Voting for president, therefore, is not something he feels is required or useful. He argues that nationalist sentiment is strong among black Americans, citing a black-interest-magazine survey in which 80 percent of respondents indicated support for a separate nation for blacks. (Some Christian fundamentalists, albeit with a different political analysis, also use a separatist argument against voting. And the U.S.'s 1 million Jehovah's Witnesses don't vote, believing that political partisanship contradicts scriptural teachings, according to a sect spokesperson.)

"If voting were an effective form of political action, poor people of color wouldn't have to struggle day in and day out," says Thoul Tong, an organizer of Southeast Asian youths in the Bronx, similarly questioning not only the significance of voting but also of U.S. citizenship. "The constitution says all men are created equal, but it means white men, not women or people of color. My vote doesn't count."

Yet on the local level, these and other activists immerse themselves in political issues, calling for community-accountable policing, organizing low-income housing tenants, demanding improved social services. Such battles may entail involvement in local elections, which, Bandele stresses, is a pragmatic means to gain immediate improvements for community members. Barros of SLAM says, "While we don't see it in the media, there are communities figuring out how to organize and run themselves."

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