When I was growing up in the Midwest, my father worked for one of the largest defense contractors in the United States. And he was exactly the type of voter sought after by politicians. Why? He worked for the largest employer in the state, he was part of the middle class, he was a married homeowner and he voted.
Come to think of it, the only important one is No. 4. It’s the only one any politician cares about.
Politicians care about gainfully employed, middle-class family men who work for defense contractors. But the typical nonvoter? Not so much. Is it because the nonvoter, on average, makes less money and has less formal education? Kind of. But not exactly. It’s really because the nonvoter doesn’t vote.
Pew Research recently did a study of who the average nonvoter is and found that nonvoters are younger than the typical voter, less affluent, have less formal education and are more racially diverse. Essentially, they are the picture of someone who needs to vote the most. Thirty-four percent are under 30, and 70 percent are under 50. Forty-three percent are members of a minority group. And what these nonvoters have less access to—universal health care, a strong social safety net, family-planning resources, an increased minimum wage, solid public schools and better options for student loans—are the same things that are constantly under threat of being cut or denied in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”
Other facts Pew found: Forty-five percent of nonvoters had trouble paying their bills in the past year; 41 percent are more likely to borrow money from family or friends, compared with 22 percent of likely voters; and almost half of all nonvoters do not have a credit card or savings account.
Considering the daily struggle going on here, common sense would suggest that these individuals should be first in line at the polls come Tuesday, but it’s their struggle that in many cases keeps them from the polls.
Voting takes place during the day, in the middle of the week. And even though, technically, every job is supposed to allow workers time to go vote, that’s a lot harder to finagle when you’re pulling down minimum wage at a retail chain or fast-food restaurant. Especially when you need the hours because you desperately need the money to keep your head above water—seeing as you don’t have savings or a credit card to fall back on. It’s why early-voting programs are so vital—and yet always under threat of being pulled—because nonvoters might actually become regular voters if they know they can go vote after church on Sunday or can turn in absentee ballots weeks before Election Day.
This is the real reason voter ID was a popular suppressive measure to push after the 2008 election, when record numbers of people voted. Voter ID demands that the poor—who sometimes don’t have driver’s licenses or access to vital identification documents—pay as much as $40 or even more to get their documentation, and then go through a lengthy process that, again, they can’t afford to take time off work to go through in order to get ID. But even if voter ID doesn’t trip up the future nonvoter, long lines and fewer polling places will. Most employers will give you an hour to go vote and come back, but not three.
The reason politicians ignore so many of the working poor is that they don’t vote. And the reason so many of the working poor don’t vote is that certain politicians have made sure it’s as inconvenient as possible for them. Because if they make voting more egalitarian, and simpler, they’d suddenly have more citizens to answer to—citizens who want different things and can’t be ignored.
A nonvoter doesn’t have to be a nonvoter. He or she might not even want to be a nonvoter. But if the nonvoter doesn’t vote, how do you get politicians to care about those who aren’t even in the game?