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.


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.

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.

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."

She, like many fellow activists, will not be voting this year. But they point out that the choice is not based on some far-fetched faith in worldwide revolution. Rather, there is a sense that voting has brought little practical relief to "the people I see when I leave my door every morning and come home to every day," according to Bandele. Call their reasoning disenchantment or wising up, but it's certainly not apathy.

The silent majority speaks volumes. Its members don't need to follow the debates to recognize mixed messages: "Value human life; executions deter crime." "Regulate campaign financing; give me money." "Equal opportunity for all; depends how you define 'all.' " "Improve your life; vote."


Research assistance: Alexander Clare

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