People Who Aren’t Voting Explain Why

Even with historic turnout projected for this election, some eligible voters are still opting out.

a pile of stickers with the words i voted lay at the bottom of a trash can

In less than a month, the nation will be voting for the next president of the United States. With a sky-high unemployment rate, exacerbated racial tensions, a continued decline in trust of governmental institutions, climate change, and of course a worsening public health crisis, this election has been touted as one of the most important in American history.

Everyone from influencers to celebrities to private companies has been encouraging their followers to vote with more energy than ever before. Organizations like Headcount and Rock the Vote continue to use celebrities like Ariana Grande and Becky G to get out the vote. And while those organizations have taken a more traditional approach, others are going more fun — and unexpected — routes to compel voters to cast their ballots. Barack Obama stepped into the Shade Room, strippers from Atlanta’s iconic Magic City strip club launched a campaign to “Get Your Booty to the Poll,” and LeBron James’s “We Got Next” initiative has successfully registered thousands of poll workers to help out in Black districts on Election Day. Still, some people have decided to opt out of voting in the upcoming election altogether because of their frustrations with both the candidates running and the electoral system.

There are those who don’t believe either incumbent Donald Trump or former vice president Joe Biden are qualified candidates to lead the country, like Maddie, a 21-year-old living in Houston, Texas, who does not identify with a specific political party. “Basically it would be voting for the lesser of two evils, and I can't bring myself to vote for either of them. It would feel morally wrong,” she said.

“We've made an industry out of telling people to vote,” Jessica, a 24-year-old from San Francisco who now lives in Peekskill, New York, told me over the phone about her heavily Democratic district, which, incidentally, happens to be represented by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Jessica feels that, for too many people, “the be-all, end-all of their activism is telling people to go vote and posting pictures of themselves with ‘I voted’ stickers and things like that, which also contributes to my apathy on this situation.”

For these eligible voters, the idea of a just and fair democratic process that truly represents them has evaporated, leaving many embittered by the notion that their vote actually matters. “I think our country has become extremely efficient at putting forth an image that we live in a democracy, even though it’s much closer to a dictatorship in definition,” said Andrew, a 35-year-old manager at a residential drug treatment center, who lives in Prescott, Arizona, and has decided not to vote this year. “I can’t even fathom the amount of action that would need to be taken for me to have any trust in our electoral process.” He added that when he was a teen he “watched live as George W. Bush and his brother Jeb literally rigged the election.”

Though there is good reason to expect record turnout this year, there continue to be massive roadblocks for many potential voters. Despite the fact that the 15th Amendment granted Black men the right to vote, and later, the 19th Amendment did the same for women, Black voters have historically faced extraordinary obstacles when attempting to cast their vote, from literacy tests and poll taxes to outright voter intimidation. Even now, major obstacles still exist, thanks in large part to gerrymandering, incredibly long lines and wait times, and various voter disenfranchisement tactics like those recently seen in Georgia. The state “requires that citizens’ names on their government-issued IDs must precisely match their names as listed on the voter rolls” — a form of voter suppression that disproportionately affects Black and Latino voters, who “are more likely to have names with the kind of unusual features that lead to discrepancies.”

And though states like Florida have made strides to allow felons the right to vote (California has a similar initiative on the ballot this year), millions of formerly incarcerated people — a large number of whom are Black and Latino — are barred from voting in 11 states permanently because of disqualifying felony convictions. Additionally, Trump himself has actively undermined the public’s faith in the voting process by questioning the integrity of mail-in voting.

“Since my personal vote means nothing, I’m not reducing harm to anyone by voting." 

Jessica, the 24-year-old who lives in upstate New York, said she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but her politics started to change during and after college, when she read books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire and work by Ta-Nehisi Coates. So began her “unlearning process [about] a lot of what’s wrong with this country.” She characterized herself as a former “big neoliberal consumer of media,” though that changed fairly quickly, she said, after she read more critical theory. And though she doesn’t begrudge anyone for voting, Jessica said she now puts her energy into things like mutual aid funds, which have received more attention and participation during the pandemic. “Seeing the type of work that they do and how little of the work actually involves telling people to participate in institutionalized politics” was encouraging, she said, because it was about direct action, support, and “being the people who actually bring aid to communities instead of relying on politicians who are never going to allocate to those funds.”

For some Americans, their disappointment in the country’s trajectory over the last several years is what’s been chipping away at their enthusiasm for voting. In Andrew’s home state of Arizona, Trump won against Clinton by more than 84,000 votes in 2016. He told me he voted for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012, when he “thought our government wasn’t suppressing voters.” He only recently lost faith in the electoral process in 2016 after Trump became president-elect. “I refused at the time to believe that Americans would vote a billionaire TV personality into the highest office of the land,” he said. “Trump has shown countless times that he can be bought. I think we are very close to a dark time in our history, one in which the freedoms we used to enjoy will be replaced.” Chief among Andrew’s concerns for the country are human rights and Trump’s handling of foreign policy. “He has been combative and threatening in his language,” Andrew said, “essentially daring other countries to attack us.” (As dispiriting as the process might seem, voting is still one of the most important ways to affect change with regard to the country’s leadership.)

Then there are Americans who weren’t even of voting age in 2016 and already felt that the system was out of step with their personal beliefs. Brianna, a 20-year-old English major and part-time tutor who attends University of Massachusetts Amherst, said she became much more interested in politics at age 14, describing herself as “one of those kids who was like, ‘Oh yes, Obama is so cool.’” But she credited her attendance at a conservative high school with people who drove trucks with Confederate flag decals and the “stifling” atmosphere it fomented as one of the reasons she became “somewhat disillusioned from mainstream politics” and “made more controversial leftist political ideas appealing to me,” describing her current ideology as something much more akin to anarcho-communism. (In essence, this belief suggests there should be no government and people should live in a stateless society without hierarchies.)

Brianna said she’s not saying she’ll never vote in the future, but her disinterest in voting boils down to the fact that, to her, there is no obvious distinction between a Trump or Biden presidency. “Since my personal vote means nothing,” said Brianna, who lives in Massachusetts, which Biden has a greater than 60% chance of winning, according to various polls, “I’m not reducing harm to anyone by voting. I know this is kinda mental gymnastics and rather childish but hey, take it up with the [Electoral College].”

Though some eligible voters have become apathetic about the state of the nation, others aren’t necessarily indifferent to the host of issues currently plaguing the country. They just can’t bring themselves to vote in either direction as a matter of principle. “I am fearful we are heading into a civil war in this country, and that is terrifying for so many reasons,” said Jillian, a 33-year-old marketing professional and registered independent from Stoneham, Massachusetts, who would’ve preferred Tulsi Gabbard as the Democratic nominee. “Our country is stuck in a very unhealthy place today and in my opinion, when considering all the candidates, I thought her persona resonated most with young voters and maybe more so independents like myself. To see Trump up against a strong smart woman like Gabbard would have been incredible.”

A vote for Biden, according to Jillian, who is biracial, is really “a vote for [Kamala] Harris,” who she believes is a "power-hungry socialist" who "will do anything humanly possible to get her ways." Jillian said she wants nothing more than to "see a woman in the White House, but not Kamala Harris. What does it say about someone when they outright accuse someone of being racist and then shortly agrees to be his running mate?" (Harris did not call Biden racist.). “I think beyond that, the lack of truth from our leaders is only bringing down this country and creating extremist groups who can act violently and make matters worse.” She said she has “zero faith” in both Trump and Joe Biden, adding that it’s “beyond frustrating” that they are the only options to choose from as she doesn’t believe either could resolve the issues most important to her. Jillian wouldn't disclose her specific gripes with Harris' policies and summed up her feelings on the candidate, saying, "Long story short, I don't trust her.” However, she did say that she grew up in a predominantly white community with "two happy and fully supported gay siblings," is married to a person in law enforcement, and her opinions "fall in many difference places."

Another concern for nonvoters who responded to BuzzFeed News’ callout is the rise of fascism in the US. Christopher, 29, who lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and who would have voted if Bernie Sanders were the Democratic nominee, believes Trump is a “literal fascist.” Following up with Christopher, he elaborated on that biting claim and its implications. “He is a textbook right-wing authoritarian and follows the fascist playbook over and over again,” Christopher said, calling fascism the final defense of capitalism when the “system is no longer ‘working.’” He continued. “The knee-jerk reactionary pivot to an administration like Trump's is a very typical trend in declining civilizations. If Trump had the unfettered power he wishes he had, I truly believe he would operate as a full-blown fascist and things would somehow be even uglier than they currently are.”

“As long as the Electoral College is in, I'm out as a voter. Votes don't matter when a system is in place to override the majority choice." 

While Christopher still believes someone like Sanders wasn’t necessarily the ideal candidate, he’s been “pushed away from electoral politics as a true means to liberation over the years.” However, he said the senator “represented a rare diversion from the typical Democratic Party platform, and an opportunity to create meaningful short-term change in the lives of average Americans,” for example, single-payer healthcare, student loan forgiveness, as well as support for the Green New Deal. Christopher said he voted for Clinton in the last election “despite not generally supporting her platform but simply because she was ‘Not Trump’ but I will not make that mistake again. A candidate has to earn my vote with a platform that is worth voting for.”

At the heart of why so many nonvoters feel there’s no reason for them to vote is the Electoral College. Jeff, 41, lives in Torrance, California, and said he’s voted in “every election since 2000. This will be the first one I do not vote in.” Jeff said that in two out of five elections, in 2000 and 2016, respectively, he “voted for the person who had the most votes but didn’t win.” Because of this, he’s come to view voting as a “pointless exercise,” adding, “My vote literally didn’t count.” Jeff, however, said he will continue to vote in local and state elections.

Similarly, Taylor of San Luis Obispo, California, said she also voted in the 2016 election because she thought her vote “would make a difference, but it didn’t. … the Electoral College had the final say.” Shannon, 46, is an independent from Knoxville, Tennessee, who supported Pete Buttigieg in the primary, echoed those same sentiments. “As long as the Electoral College is in, I'm out as a voter. Votes don't matter when a system is in place to override the majority choice,” she said. “My vote toward [the] president won’t count when coming from a praised red state that blindly follows party lines instead of the best candidate to win for all interests.” In the last presidential election, Trump easily carried the state with 61% of the vote, and he will likely repeat that this year, according to the most recent polling data.

Many participants said abolishing this system is what it would take for them to become contributing members of the voting process again. Critics of the Electoral College cite its racist origins, as well as the integrity of the system as a whole. Today, the cause for abolishing the Electoral College has popular support, with 61% of citizens, according to a recent Gallup poll, in favor of doing away with it altogether.

As political polarization increases, people like Jessica remain unconvinced that voting alone will be a panacea. “This country is literally on the verge of multiple debt crises, and mass evictions,” Jessica said. “Nov. 3 isn’t going to change that for anyone.” ●

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