Jim Kenyon: Nonvoters sit one out

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/4/2020 9:36:07 AM
Modified: 11/4/2020 9:35:57 AM

They’re more scarce this year than in the past, but they’re still out there. nonvoters have always made up a sizable chunk of the American electorate.

Over the last couple of days, I talked with more than a dozen people in the Upper Valley who had no intention of a casting a ballot before the polls closed Tuesday evening.

It doesn’t mean they’re less patriotic or unconcerned about the country’s future direction. For one reason or another, voting wasn’t on their to-do lists.

“I don’t know enough,” said a middle-aged woman working behind the deli counter at an Upper Valley convenience store.

And before I could probe further, she politely excused herself. “I have to make a lot of steak and cheeses,” she said.

Since the 1960s, between one-third and one-half of eligible U.S. voters haven’t cast ballots in presidential elections, according to The New York Times.

In 2016, 4 in 10 eligible voters sat out the election. New Hampshire and Vermont typically are above the national average in terms of turnout. Four years ago, New Hampshire was at 72.5% and Vermont at 64.8%.

Even as 100 million early voters fueled this year’s expected record turnout across the country, millions of eligible voters remained on the sidelines.

Kyle Green, 27, checked his cellphone during a short break outside Cumberland Farms, where he works, in Wilder on Monday afternoon. The night before he’d gone online to see about registering to vote in Hartford, where he lives, after previously being registered in another Vermont town.

From what Green could tell, changing his residency would take more time than he had. And he wasn’t sure whom he’d vote for, even if he could.

Neither President Donald Trump nor former Vice-President Joe Biden had gained Green’s trust.

I’ve read that many young people nationally are unmotivated to vote because Trump and Biden, both in their 70s, don’t speak to them, particularly when it comes to creating decent-paying working-class jobs.

“I’m looking for who is going to help the people who really need it and how they’ll do it,” Green said.

In an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data from the 2016 election, the Times found a “deep class divide: Americans who did not vote were more likely to be poor, less likely to have a college degree, and more likely to be a single parent than the people who voted.”

The Times added, “People who decide not to vote have as big an impact on elections as people who cast ballots, especially in close races.”

Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida, oversees the United States Elections Project that has tracked voting data back to 1789. Four years ago in New Hampshire, nearly 300,000 eligible voters didn’t cast ballots, McDonald reported. Hillary Clinton won the state — and its four electoral votes — by only 2,736 votes, or 0.3%.

By McDonald’s calculations, New Hampshire’s ratio of nonvoters to margin of victory was the second-highest in the country, behind only Michigan.

This week in talking with nonvoters, I found an interesting thread: Several people who had supported Trump in 2016 were no longer behind him. But they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Biden.

“I liked Donald Trump to begin with, but then the coronavirus hit,” said 59-year-old Michael Murray, who was waiting for an Advance Transit bus outside Kilton Library in West Lebanon. “I just don’t know anymore.”

Later in the day, I came across 42-year-old Alan Brown, who lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and was passing through Haverhill.

After voting for Trump in 2016, the government’s inability to get a handle on the coronavirus had given him pause.

“I never thought I’d see the day in America where I’d have to wear a mask everywhere,” he said.

Politicians “tell you what they’re going to do and then (when they get into office), they don’t do it, ” he added.

At a laundromat in Fairlee, I talked with a 40-year-old hospice worker, who politely declined to give her name. Was she planning to vote on Tuesday?

“I usually do, but not this year.”

In her job, she’s seen the toll that COVID-19 has taken on the elderly and their families. They’ve been unable to visit, even on birthdays and holidays.

She wouldn’t go as far as to blame Trump for his handling — or mishandling, depending on your point of view — of the pandemic, but didn’t see Biden as the solution.

“I’m not excited about any of them,” she said.

Other people I talked to treasure their vote, or long for one.

On Tuesday, I stopped by the Family Dollar store in Enfield, where Grace Gibbons was stocking shelves. She’s lived in the U.S. for 40 years after emigrating from Portugal. She planned to vote as soon as she finished her shift. Leading up to Tuesday, she talked with her children about voting. They were born in the U.S. and are now in their 20s.

“I had to struggle to get my citizenship,” Gibbons told me, “but to be able to vote, it was worth the trouble. Just to have your voice heard for one day.”

On Monday evening, I visited another laundromat in the Upper Valley. A man and his 9-year-old son, both wearing masks, sat side-by-side near the entrance. There were only a couple of other people doing laundry at the same time.

Was the man planning to vote the next day, or had he already done so?

“I’m not a citizen yet,” he told me. “I wish.”

The man, a restaurant cook, had moved to the U.S. from El Salvador about 20 years ago. As we talked about his job, his son spoke up.

“I was born in the United States,” the boy said proudly. “Maybe I can vote someday.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@ vnews.com.







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