News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

November 4, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Elections, governing would look a lot different if everybody voted

A raffle ticket purchase usually comes with a disclaimer — “you must be present to win.”

Elections operate under the same premise. Those who vote stand a better chance of getting their concerns addressed than those who don’t. In the 2010 midterm elections, just 21 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in America voted. Sixty-one percent of folks over 65 cast ballots. Candidates (who later become office holders) keep that in mind. The 2012 attack ads verify the preferences shown to voters, compared to all Average Joes and Janes in the U.S.

“Think of all the attention that is paid to Social Security and Medicare, rather than youth issues,” Peter Levine — director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement — said by telephone Friday from his office at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Which is not to say those government-funded retirement and health-care programs are not crucial topics; they are, indeed. Yet, as politicians solidify their “five-point plans,” the issues that make the cut on those lists typically target voters, rather than nonvoters.

That said, how would the 2012 campaign (and ultimately the local, state and federal government) be different if every American citizen over 18 voted on Nov. 6?

On Thursday, the Pew Research Center released an analysis of the people the politicians, pollsters and pundits are not clamoring about — nonvoters. They’re not a tiny demographic. In fact, nearly 43 percent of the voting-age population did not vote in 2008, an election that inspired the broadest public participation in decades. Four years later, Pew surveyed, nationwide, nonvoters — adults who are unable to vote, and those who choose not to vote. Their priorities contrast significantly from those of voters. So, how different would politicians campaign and then govern if everybody voted?

“We don’t put any judgment on that,” said Pew associate director Carroll Doherty, “but it would certainly change things by looking at those tables [of survey questions].”

First, let’s identify nonvoters. Statistically, they’re younger, less educated and less wealthy than likely voters. Most (64 percent) aren’t married, compared to voters (59 percent are married), according to the Pew study. A larger slice of the nonvoting population is Hispanic (21 percent), while 7 percent of likely voters are Hispanic. Surprisingly, more than one-third of nonvoters are actually registered, yet have little or no interest in the election.

“These are people who are pretty disengaged from the campaign and the election,” Doherty said, speaking Thursday by phone from the Pew Center in Washington.

Next, let’s discern their thoughts. Though disengaged, nonvoters still have opinions, and they’re not easy to stereotype. Their views on domestic and foreign policy tend to be more liberal than voters, but they mirror voters on most social issues, such as same-sex marriage, immigration and abortion. Most nonvoters (67 percent) favor bringing troops in Afghanistan home as soon as possible, while just 56 percent of likely voters agree. Meanwhile, 54 percent of nonvoters say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 39 percent think it should be illegal, almost identical to likely voters (55 and 38).

They’re less partisan than likely voters, with 44 percent of nonvoters identifying themselves as independent, 29 percent Democrat, and 17 percent Republican. Those who consider themselves liberal are nearly the same (25 percent of nonvoters, 20 percent of likely voters), but only 28 percent of nonvoters identify as conservative compared to 44 percent of likely voters.

Finally, unlike the dead-even split among likely voters in the presidential race, nonvoters overwhelmingly favor President Obama (59 percent) over Republican Mitt Romney (24 percent).

One group of Americans is the least engaged of all — people under 30 with no college education. In terms of public policy considerations, less educated young people “are left out,” Levine said. Yet, some of U.S. society’s greatest concerns — war, unemployment, and a lack of health-care coverage — affect them most directly.

Why will so few young, less-affluent, less-educated, unmarried Americans go to the polls Tuesday, when they have so much at stake?

The hard-line argument places the responsibility on those nonvoters. If they want their president, senator, Congress member, governor, state legislator or county commissioner to remember their interests, they need to get up and vote; otherwise, don’t complain. And, that’s a valid point. Still, others would legitimately blame the unnecessarily cumbersome voting rules, crafted more for people living and working in stable situations, rather than those who may have had two or three addresses, or a last-name change since the previous election. Voting registration closes 29 days before the election in Indiana — precisely the time when most Americans start paying attention to the campaign. In this age of instant technology, the Hoosier state should adopt same-day registration.

The saddest reality is that both sides are comfortable with the situation.

Nonvoters find it easier to stay uninvolved. The powerful prefer those nonparticipants stay that way.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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