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Why so many don't vote. And what if they did?

I knew many people do not bother to vote in this country. I did not appreciate how many.

In researching voting, and the debate over how to assure citizens can vote Nov. 3 despite the continuing pandemic, I came across a great poll and analysis conducted by the nonpartisan Knight Foundation, which has as its goal “to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy.”

“In 2016, nearly 100 million eligible Americans did not cast a vote for president, representing 43% of the eligible voting-age population,” states the report, “The Untold Story of American Non-Voters.”

That’s a staggering number, particularly given it was a presidential election year. In non-presidential years a majority of Americans of eligible age do not participate in voting. So, despite all the flag waving, military supporting, slogan screaming, demonstration partaking activity, a lot of people don’t bother with this most fundamental act of patriotism.

It is disheartening given all the blood that has been spilled, both in defense of the nation and by women, black citizens and their supporters who boldly demanded in the 20th century that all be given the chance to participate in representative government.

The Knight Foundation wanted to find out who these nonparticipants were and why they don’t bother voting. Researchers interviewed more than 12,000 non-voters, both those who were not registered to vote and those who at some point registered but seldom, if ever, vote. The foundation released its findings in February.

These non-voters are more likely to be women, poorer, of lower education, minorities and younger.

The major political parties have a shot at engaging some of them, but others could prove quite difficult to involve in politics because of disinterest or the perception that voting is a waste of time. The highest response among the unregistered as to why they don’t vote was, “I’m not interested/Don’t care” at 29%, followed by “my vote doesn’t matter,” at 13%.

An odd finding was the number of nonvoters who said this time will be different, that they will vote in 2020, with 71% saying they plan to vote and 55% noting “absolute certainty” they will do so. I liken this to the “absolute certainty” many of us express at New Year’s about losing weight or becoming more organized. Some of these non-voters may turn out, but my expectation is it will be a relatively small percentage. Still, they could make a difference because their votes do matter.

Conventional wisdom is that a bigger turnout favors Democrats. Poorer, younger, minorities and women do sound like a more Democratic Party demographic. This explains why Democrats — in addition to it being a noble pursuit — support initiatives that make it easier to vote, such as Connecticut’s Election Day registration option and voter registration when citizens do business with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

And it explains why Republicans are more likely to throw up impediments to vote, such as more stringent identification laws that disproportionately impact minority and poor citizens. Connecticut Republicans have, likewise, raised concerns about Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s plan to aggressively encourage absentee voting by sending absentee ballot applications to every registered voter. Merrill said it will assure citizens can safely vote even if the pandemic sees a resurgence in the fall. Republicans express concerns about fraud.

The fraud claim is a canard. While voting fraud does happen, it is rare and seldom consequential. Absentee ballot abuse usually involves political operatives delivering absentee applications and pushing folks to vote a certain way. So mailing applications would actually reduce potential abuse. There is no reason Merrill’s plan can’t work and provide honest results.

Republicans would sound more sincere if they said making it too easy to vote sends more ill-informed voters to the polls. The Knight study backs that, with 56% of usual nonvoters responding that they do not actively seek out news and information, compared to 73% of regular voters who do.

And while the demographics of nonvoters may generally favor Democrats, less-educated white voters are overrepresented in battleground states and more likely to vote for President Trump’s re-election if they can be persuaded to vote, the study found.

Asked if they voted, who they would vote for, 33% of nonvoters said the Democratic nominee, 30% Trump, the rest someone else or didn’t know. But that was before the impeachment trial, COVID-19, the recession and the mass protests.

Right now, the Democratic base is more energized and seldom or nonvoters are more likely to vote Democratic, if they turn out. That’s not in the Knight Foundation study, just my opinion.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.


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