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Nonvoters Are People Too

Those who don't vote may be telling us more about the current state of democracy in the United States than those who do. (Photo:Vox Efx/cc/flickr)

There's plenty of chatter about the upcoming midterm elections out there–though, as the right-wing Media Research Center (10/22/14) recently reported, not very much on the high-profile network evening newscasts. But there's one common election-year observation that, while true, misses the point.

Peter Baker of the New York Times (10/21/14) observed recently that the Republicans "will ride dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama" in order to win. Yet, he wrote:

There is a paradox in that, because no matter who wins the upper chamber, voters seem poised to return more than 90 percent of incumbents in both parties to a Congress they say they loathe. Expressing disapproval is fashionable, but Americans still rely on the institutions they disapprove of.

PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff (10/27/14) likewise noted:

We hear so much about how Americans are disgusted with Washington, they don't like the people who are serving here in the Congress, they don't like what's going on at the White House, the media focusing on all these close races.

But, Amy, when it comes right down to it, we looked at it again today, 90 percent of the members of the House and the Senate are coming back and don’t even have a serious opponent.

This is true enough: People don't like Congress, and yet most members of Congress get to keep their jobs. Is it really because the public's  "disapproval is fashionable"? Or that we're not really as disgusted as we say we are?USA Today novoter chart

When you hear this kind of election analysis, remember that it doesn't apply to the actual public. Just 36 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2006 midterms; it was 37 percent in 2010. So the majority of the public doesn't even vote in these contests; presidential races, meanwhile, tend to attract a bit more than half of the voting population.

Could there be any clearer expression of voter disgust with the political system than the decision to not vote at all? All the exhortations to get out and make your voice heard apparently fail to motivate people to go ahead and do so. But too often the nonparticipants are written out of election coverage–even though, if one takes all that stuff about the consent of the governed seriously, they are the clear majority, and will continue to be affected by government policy.

During the 2012 election season, USA Today partnered with Suffolk University to poll unlikely voters. It's an interesting snapshot of what could be something like half the adult population. They don't espouse a coherent ideology, but, Susan Page (8/15/12) wrote, they "lean toward the Democratic candidate in most though not all election years."

And as the chart to the left shows, a majority of them would like to see more than two parties, think that politics is corrupt and full of empty promises. Many think there isn't much difference between the two parties.

If you care about democracy, then you should have some interest in the citizens who aren't exercising their right to vote. But in horse race-dominated politics, the campaigns know that the best way to win is to turn out the sliver of the population most likely to vote for your candidate–which can often mean focusing on issues that aren't all that relevant to most people. And then journalists covering the campaigns will focus most of their attention on those messages–thereby making the whole process all the more alienating to these unlikely voters.

So when they say they don't think the political process feels all that relevant to their lives, they've got a point.

It's not in the interests of political candidates to expand the discussion; if a Republican thinks he can win by hammering home messages about how Obama is weak on Ebola, he's going to do that.  That would seem to mean that, absent an influx of independent parties, journalism is the one institution that could serve to expand the discussion of real issues that matter to people.

If history is any guide, that's pretty unlikely.

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Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the Communications Director at the National Coalition Against Censorship. Previously at the media watchdog group FAIR, Hart is also the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly. (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

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