RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We've been talking a lot this campaign season about voter enthusiasm. More Americans say they are enthusiastic about voting in a midterm election than at any point in the last two decades. Even so, a majority of Americans likely will not vote this November. And while there are barriers to voting, sometimes because of laws, there are also tens of millions of people who could vote but choose not to. NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid has been trying to figure out why.
Thanks for coming in, Asma.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: My pleasure.
MARTIN: First off, can you just give us some perspective? How low is voter turnout?
KHALID: Well, midterm turnout has been low for years. Only around 40 percent of people voted in the last two midterm elections. In fact, you have to go back to the turn of the 20th century to find a midterm election where a solid majority of people voted.
KHALID: You know, of course back then, voting rights were far more limited. So the eligible voting pool was a lot more male and a lot more white.
KHALID: But I want to point out that, while midterm turnout is particularly poor, we see a low turnout even in presidential years when you have millions of people who don't vote. For every 10 Americans who are eligible to vote, only about six actually do. And if we compare that to other countries, you'll see that turnout in U.S elections does trail most other highly developed democratic countries. You know, take for example, Belgium, Sweden and Denmark. They all have voter turnout that's above 80 percent.
MARTIN: Wow. So we're talking about 6 in 10 Americans exercising their right to vote. That's a lot of people. But even within that, are you able to identify any trends?
KHALID: Yeah. Well, we've been searching through data about the entire American electorate. It was compiled by a nonpartisan data firm called L2. And through this data, we were able to figure out who's voted in none or one of the last eight elections. And that's how we were defining nonvoters.
KHALID: We've noticed some key demographic traits in who these people are. And No. 1 is that nonvoters are more likely to be lower income and less educated.
MARTIN: So I know that you have been traveling around the country asking this very question - why aren't people voting? What have you heard?
KHALID: Well, one of the places I visited is Houston County in Georgia. It's about two hours south of Atlanta. And this is a region, you know, where you've got some pockets where people told me that there's not electricity or running water. So it can be hard to convince people that voting should be a priority. Rutha Jackson, who heads the local NAACP, says she often hears people say that their vote doesn't matter. They'll say things like this.
RUTHA JACKSON: It doesn't matter whether I'm, you know, registered to vote or whether I go vote because I don't see anything changing. We're still being profiled. We're still being gunned down. We're still - nothing is changing.
KHALID: And I went knocking on doors in housing projects and trailer parks with this group called the New Georgia Project. Its mission is to register people, specifically nonvoters, of color.
(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON KNOCKING ON DOOR)
DONTE RUMPH: Who is it?
JACKSON: Hello. My name is Rutha Jackson. And we are...
KHALID: In this one subsidized housing community, I met 24-year-old Donte Rumph (ph). He told me he's never been interested in voting. And I asked him what he thought about the 2016 presidential election.
RUMPH: When it came, they already knew who was going to win.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hillary and Trump, yeah.
RUMPH: I mean, they already had their decision before people really had their own opinions about it. I mean, everybody knows.
KHALID: Even in an election decided by razor-thin margins, this idea that the outcome was predetermined is not uncommon. I heard similar thoughts from a couple of other people in Georgia.
MARTIN: I mean, we have to say, this is pretty depressing. You're talking to people who basically don't believe that the democratic system works in this country. They don't see it affecting their lives, and they don't think their vote matters.
KHALID: Exactly. And Rachel, some people told me that they feel that the Electoral College is unfair. Other people told me that they think money and big business determines the winner more than people's votes, so they don't really see a point in voting. And you know, it's not unusual for people to think that money influences our politics. But this is coming down to a point where people don't feel like there is actually any effect in voting, that there's no point to their vote. And a lot of people also feel that voting is not a great way to change their individual lives. Donte Rumph told me that, you know, politicians don't seem to care a lot about people like him.
RUMPH: We tend to get looked over every time a presidency comes. You know, people to have the same issues with, you know, racial - you know, it gets real deep real fast. But that stuff just seems to continue no matter who's in office.
KHALID: And so Rachel, this feeling of being overlooked is kind of a symbol of the broader class divide that we see in who votes and who doesn't vote. A study came out from the Pew Research Center that looked at the demographic differences between voters and nonvoters in the 2016 election. And the report found more than half of all nonvoters had an annual family income under $30,000.
MARTIN: So you're hearing a lot of apathy. Was anyone able to articulate where that comes from - I mean, why they're not connecting change in their life with voting?
KHALID: Yeah. I mean - I met a 29-year-old Raymond Taylor (ph) at a barbershop in Georgia one evening. And it was this place where a bunch of guys from different community organizations, they all get together to discuss issues going on in the neighborhood. And I asked Taylor, you know, why he doesn't vote, and this is what he told me.
RAYMOND TAYLOR: Well, the reason I don't vote on a national level right here. It's a red state. In other words - so I'm pretty sure it's like, I could do my own mathematics and figure out what's going on and pretty much say, hey, this vote is not going to really matter for president.
KHALID: So Rachel, you know, he would vote Democrat if he did. And in fact, he told me the one and only time he voted was in 2008 for Barack Obama. He said, you know, he wanted to be a part of history. But this idea that his vote doesn't matter because of the political leanings of the state he lives in is something we see across the country. If you look at turnout from 2016, you'll notice that some of the states that had the highest turnout were places where the margin of victory was less than 5 percent.
MARTIN: All right. So there are clearly broader implications when you have a country where the voting turnout is so low. I imagine you're going to look at that. What's the impact on our democracy?
KHALID: You know, I think, Rachel, that's a sort of big philosophical question. And we did want to explore that - you know, how - if at all - our politics might change if everyone in this country voted. And part of what's going on right now is that campaigns know who votes and know who doesn't. And so they know who to target with their messages. Researchers will tell me that, you know, there is some sense that public policies would potentially shift if nonvoters, who are more likely to be Latino, Asian-American and poor, suddenly started voting en masse. Maybe politicians would be pressured to address immigration reform or address economic issues differently. And we'll be digging further into all of that.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Asma Khalid.
Thanks so much, Asma.
KHALID: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF WUN TWO'S "GARRYA")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.