Looking at Facebook or watching news coverage of protests and counter-protests, it's easy to imagine the US as split into two bitter political factions. On one side, there's the "resistance," mostly Hillary Clinton voters who are so furious at each new Trump tweet they can barely focus at work. On the other are Donald Trump supporters, outraged that the media refuses give the president a chance to prove himself.
But more numerous than either Trump or Clinton supporters are the people who didn't vote at all. In 2016, 42 percent of eligible voters didn't make it to the polls, and that doesn't include US residents who can't vote for one reason or another: current or former prison inmates barred from the polls by state law, some people with mental disabilities, and immigrants and visa holders who aren't yet citizens. And in many states, concerted campaigns have made it more difficult for some would-be voters through photo ID requirements, limits on early voting, and new registration rules.
All told, a much smaller percentage of adults votes in the US than in most developed countries. Though there are many explanations for this oft-cited stat, one is that many people feel disengaged from the items on a ballot. A lot of nonvoters don't know or care much about politics, don't see how government decisions affect their lives, and see the whole mess in Washington as a waste of their time.
One of the key questions as we inch toward 2020—and toward local and congressional elections between now and then, which tend to attract far fewer voters than presidential contests—is whether the incredibly weird state of the country's politics will drive more people to turn out. That's particularly important for Democrats, since nonvoters tend to be younger, less white, and less affluent than voters—characteristics that also often predict more liberal political leanings. A February Pew poll found that Trump's disapproval rating was at 63 percent among US adults who aren't registered to vote, compared with 54 percent for registered voters.
To put some faces to these numbers, I asked some nonvoters who agree that Trump is doing a pretty terrible job what they think of the raucous political scene of 2017, why they didn't vote in November, and what might move them to get out to the voting booth next time around.
I met Johnson at a bus station in Lowell, Massachusetts. He came to the US from Grenada at age 14. Now he's 20, and he's never voted before.
On the travel ban: What makes this country powerful is that we have so much diversity. Yeah, there are a few bad apples, but we shouldn't punish the entirety of a specific group just because of that. I've had Muslim friends, and they are some of the most peaceful people that I've ever met. It's just some of the radical sects and stuff like that. That's what we should try to focus on, but to ban the entirety of a cluster of countries, that's not right.
On not voting: There wasn't a candidate that I could fully stand behind morally. On one hand, you have a candidate [Trump] who was brazen, and I like that because I'm a very straightforward person myself. But some of the stuff he said I couldn't fully agree with. But then, on the other hand, you have a candidate [Clinton], she's been in office for a while, and she's held positions of power and stuff like that. But her track record as to the bad stuff that I've heard happened didn't really leave a good taste in my mouth, so to speak.
On whether he'll vote in future elections: Congress and stuff like that—I would have to educate myself on, because I have no clue really on those things. But for president, I don't know. Trump—he had that power. He was able to sway people with what he said. But I think he used the wrong emotion to do that.
On what policies would get him to vote: I guess the healthcare system. That's another reason why I didn't really vote for Trump. Everyone says Obamacare is bad, and he said he was going to repeal and replace, that's been the Republican motto for a very long time now. But he didn't give any idea or he didn't say anything that would give us an idea of what he was thinking, where his mind was. If he had done that, then he would have had my support.
Someone I would have liked to see in office is Bernie Sanders. He seems like a very standup guy for someone who is about to seemingly kick the bucket. He's pretty powerful. And I don't say powerful as in money-wise or connections or nothing like that. He appeals to me as a young person because some of the issues he's focused on is what I'm sort of worried about.
Mark V. Pereira
Pereira can't vote because was convicted of a felony. When I met him, he was walking over to a friend's house in New Hampshire, where he was going to hang out with some friends who are veterans like him.
I'm all fucked up. We went to the war and shit. I was a wild child. I was in the Navy in Japan, on an aircraft carrier. I went in in '99. When the towers fell, we were on watch in Japan. We went straight to the Middle East, and we were launching bombs from planes every day.
[After coming home] I was selling weed, driving around drunk. I crashed my car, ran from the scene. I had a half pound. Yeah. I stopped doing all that. I ended up down here homeless. [A local veteran's support organization] helped me out. They're spectacular. So's the VA. It's not like everybody says. It's not really that much of a nightmare anymore. You go there, they give you services. They just gave me a vacuum cleaner for free because I'm poor.
I didn't really want Hillary, I didn't really want Trump. I wanted some new blood. I really just think it's a mess—the way he acts, and his personality, just does not fit what we are all about. The guy is actually racist. That's been bred into him and taught to him. It's just the way he is—the way he treats women, everything.
On why he wouldn't vote for Clinton: You can't mishandle information after you've been working with classified information for however long. That's a mess too. That whole thing is a mess. Everybody had a scandal coming into it.
I'm hoping to have my felony exonerated someday, so I can vote. [I'd vote for] whoever has the opinions that I'm aligned with, that I think are in everybody's best interests. The world, the environment. Look what Trump just did with [EPA head Scott Pruitt]—this guy sued the EPA for not letting him do enough stuff, and then [Trump] makes him head of the EPA? That guy doesn't care about the environment. He cares about making money, same thing with Trump, so they're aligned. He wants more coal power, the dirtiest power we could possibly make, he wants that. He's like, "We'll bring the jobs back." Well, we'll destroy the planet too, till we all have terrible smog everywhere.
McNulty is a cook, a hip-hop artist, and the owner of a home recording studio in Nashua, New Hampshire. As we talked on his front porch, two kids called to him from inside the house, asking if they could have some yogurt and apples.
I voted for Bernie [in the Democratic primary]. I just don't really support Trump. I don't like Hillary at all. Just the whole email thing, the lies and all that, I just don't support all that. I just don't want somebody running my country when they're lying. Trump? I just think he's an idiot. Some of the stuff I agree with. He's opened up jobs for everybody and all that; I see where he's trying to go with all that. But, at the same time, I just think he's going to start another civil war in our country, you know, with the whole trying to build a wall and the way he comes off when he talks about illegals, illegal immigrants. There's already riots and stuff in DC and all over happening because he's in office. It's just a matter of time.
Obama was a great candidate. Look at him, he ended the war over there in Iraq, caught Osama. The only thing I didn't agree with was some things, like he wanted to close Guantánamo Bay and release the prisoners and all that. That's not a good move. They're there for a reason.
[Also] if you want healthcare that should be a choice. With the whole Obamacare thing, you're taking my money from my taxes because I don't have health insurance. I don't want to be controlled like that. If I get sick, it's on me. If I get a $100,000 hospital bill, that's on me. I don't need somebody telling me, "Oh, you need this, or I'm going to take your money." First of all, if I don't have health insurance, it's because I can't afford it. So now you're going to take my money that I already can't afford because I don't have health insurance. That's just stupid.
I'd vote again, depending on who it is. I mean, I see all the rumors and everything about [Michelle Obama] supposedly going to run. I'd vote for her. That was my thing with Hillary, too. Bill [Clinton] did good back in the day from what I've heard. I was young, I don't remember. I was thinking Bill did good, maybe Hilary would have been good in office. But I don't know what she did, deleted emails and just acted sketchy. I don't like the sketchiness. Just be honest.
Mike and Crystal Montgrain
The Montgrains have two young children, and both of them work at home caring for family members. When I approached them to talk at a laundromat in Lowell, Massachusetts, Mike said he didn't pay any attention to politics, but then he launched into a litany of his concerns about Trump's travel ban, and Crystal joined in.
Crystal: This little girl needed lifesaving surgery. She got permission to come over here for that lifesaving surgery, but because he put that ban on, she couldn't come. But luckily, I guess it was a federal judge, and she got the surgery just in time.
Mike: The president should be helping the citizens and not keeping them from getting what they need of defunding Planned Parenthood, which helps teens learn about safe sex and diseases and stuff. He thinks it's helping them to actually have sex, and that's not what they're about. I just think he's a womanizer. He hates women. Women have no rights to him. They fought their whole lives to get the rights they have now, and he's going to say women have no rights?
Crystal: If he had his way, women wouldn't have jobs.
Mike: "They should be at home cooking meals for their husband." No, that's not what happens now. Back then maybe, when you were a kid. Now—shit doesn't work that way now. That's why I don't follow politics.
Crystal: I haven't voted in years.
Mike: This whole world is about respect and common sense. Nobody has common sense or respect for anybody or anything anymore.
On whether they think about voting:
Mike: No. It's just not something I do.
Crystal: I have. When I used to live up in New Hampshire, but I was with my family at that time. Once I left my parents, I haven't voted since.
Mike: I'm just not interested in voting. Like I said, I don't follow politics.
On having opinions, even though he doesn't follow politics:
Mike: It's just common sense. You hear stuff, you read stuff, and you just put your own opinion into it—what's real what's fake.
Crystal: You kind of couldn't help seeing it over the election.
On whether they could be convinced to vote:
Mike: I probably wouldn't vote, but I probably would say, "Yes, that person would be the better president than that person they're running up against." I wouldn't literally go vote. It's not something I do. I'm not interested.
Crystal: We don't have time to go vote because we don't have people to watch our children.
Mike: We work at home just so we can have the time to take care of our kids.
Crystal: They don't want to go to daycare. They'd rather be home.
I met Easy at a playground in Malden, Massachusetts, where she was playing soccer with her young son.
I'm a professional volleyball player. So I was in China playing and we kind of were trying to keep up when we were over there but it's a little tough because media there's a little more censored. I was there from the end of September to the first week of January.
I did [think of voting absentee] but by the time I started filling out everything it was way too late. It just kind of wasn't worth it. I didn't really see a great option either way, just in my opinion.
I was kind of stuck. I mean, I definitely wasn't going to vote for Trump, but I wasn't going to feel settled voting for Hillary either. Politics in general, it's not really about trust because I don't think the politicians in general are very trustworthy people. But she just, I don't know, I just always felt like she was just putting on a face to try to get votes and not really saying what she meant. I don't know, it's tough. I wanted to support her, just as a woman, thinking that maybe we could take that step. But I don't think America is ready for that. Well, obviously. The people kind of said that that's not really what they're looking for.
To be honest, I try not to watch too much [news about Trump] because, I don't know, he's not my kind of guy. At all. I'm not very political, but I just don't like the kind of bashing things and just the blatant lying. For me, I just feel it's disrespectful to the people thinking that they're that stupid. The Twitter stuff, that drives me nuts. When you're president you have a lot of stuff to do. How do you have time to use Twitter, going off on everyone and anyone?
I've been playing volleyball for a long time, so I am always overseas during elections. But I just think now is the time [to get more engaged]. I think I've kind of put it off long enough, and just seeing how it went this past election—I mean, yes, one vote isn't going to change everything, but it could help.
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