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To Vote Or Not To Vote, That Is A Midterm Question

As the 2010 midterm elections approach, there is much palaver among pundits and pollsters about widespread disenchantment with mainstream politics.

According to a mid-September Associated Press poll, only 38 percent of Americans surveyed approve of the work of congressional Democrats and a paltry 31 percent approve of the work of congressional Republicans.

What is going on? Apparently, many Americans just do not like their elected leaders very much. Some citizens are so fed up, they are not planning to vote at all on Nov. 2.

Charlotte Ross Russell, for example. A 35 year-old military veteran, military wife and mother of two in Chesapeake, Va., Russell says she always has been passionate about voting: "I have always been that person, the one who said: 'It's our duty! Our soldiers fight for your right, don't waste it!  Our mothers, grandmothers, et cetera, didn't get to vote, so as women we have to vote!' "

These days it's a different story. "I'm the one who's tired and downtrodden about it all," she says. "I feel like I've voted in everything since I was 18 years old. And look at where we are. Look at what 'my vote' did for America. I voted for [President George W.] Bush twice and, God help me for admitting it before my military family who don't know this -- I almost feel like I'm confessing a sin here -- I voted for Obama because I wanted things to change, to be different."

And that was just in the major elections, she says. "Think of all the choices I made for and against amendments, for and against judges and local school boards and ... well, it makes me a little crazy to think about it."

Russell says she feels somewhat personally responsible "for the mess we seem to be in. I voted for those people. I thought I was making the best choice given the information I had at hand. But really, now I'm wondering if I'm the person to be making these decisions."

So Russell has decided not to vote this year. She plans "to just abstain and see what my fellow citizens think and see where we get over the next couple of years."

She adds, "I really do want to see change, want to see people happy, want to see less suffering among our own populations. Maybe everyone else can help get it right, you know?"

Mudslinging And Slandering

Russell is not alone in her discontent. To allow nonvoters to vent, NPR posted a message on its Facebook page asking people who have voted in most past federal elections -- but don't plan to vote in this year's elections -- to speak up.

More than 800 people, including Russell, replied. Many said they plan to vote in every election come hell or high water.

And then there were people like Aimee Williams, 29, of Levittown, Pa. Like Russell, Williams has voted in every national election -- and most local contests -- since she was 18. But, she says, "lately it just doesn't seem worth it to go out and vote. The two-party system is broken. Politicians no longer seem to care about doing the job. It is all about getting elected and fear-mongering -- on both sides. Parties are catering to the fringes and ignoring the real issues affecting people today."

Holding down two jobs and volunteering for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society keeps Williams busy. But she finds time to pay attention to politics. "I am sick and tired of all the mudslinging and slandering," she says. "Gone is the beauty of the American political system. Now we are left with dirty fighting and nothing getting done. Elections no longer seem to be about who would be the best for the job and are now a choice between the lesser of two evils."

She says she has gone from being "an eager voter, to an apathetic voter, and now probably won't vote at all."

So how would Williams change the system? "Frankly, I worry we may be too far gone to really get things under control," she says. "But I believe a first vital step would be campaign finance reform. Get lobbyists out of control."

She also favors some kind of structure that encourages or forces candidates to have television and radio ads that are issue-based and focused on self-accomplishment and vision. "Perhaps if the way people got elected returned to a more civil and thoughtful process," she says, "the candidates themselves may also."

James Slaven, a 38-year-old statistics lecturer at West Virginia University, says that the last time he voted his polling station did not properly display candidates of third parties. As for whether he will vote this time around, he says, "I haven't decided yet. I will probably give them another chance to see if they have fixed the problem."

What Is The Point?

Traditionally, voter turnout for midterm elections is much lower than for presidential elections. The Federal Election Commission stat sheet shows that while 56.8 percent of the voting-age population voted in the 2008 presidential election, only 37.1 percent voted in the 2006 midterms. Pretty much the same split has been true for the past 40 years -- percentages range in or near the 50s for presidents and in the 30s for midterms.

In The Washington Post, a recent story on voter disgruntlement carried the headline "As November Nears, Voters Turn Backs On Both Parties." "Poll after poll," the Post's Chris Cillizza wrote, "shows that both national parties are deeply unpopular."

Granted, fervor spurred by the multifaceted Tea Party movement could provide some sort of counterweight to voter disenchantment.

In fact, turnout guru Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University and head of the United States Election Project, says he won't be surprised to see a larger turnout at this year's midterms -- in the 40 to 45 percent range -- than four years ago. "The dismay and discontent will increase turnout," McDonald predicts.

While a number of polls do reflect an "enthusiasm gap," McDonald says, "Democrats are actually enthused to vote. ... It's just that Republicans are just more enthused."

The political cognoscenti are obsessing over how important this year’s elections are supposed to be -- because it’s a battle for control of Congress. So it's even more intriguing that many folks are going against the grain and not planning to visit the voting booth at all.

One of the unenthusiastic is Alissa Parsley, 27, a second-year law student at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin. Parsley, who is leaning toward a career in public interest law, says she would rather spend her energy changing things through the legal process than through the voting process.

"It makes no sense to vote," says Parsley. "I understand that most of the reason people vote is to retain the right to complain and participate in political discourse, but from my viewpoint, the effort I have to make to vote outweighs whatever moral or patriotic benefit I might receive."

She says she understands how people feel more involved when they vote in local elections and primaries. But she doesn’t see the point in going to the polls for federal elections. "My cynicism is furthered by certain elections in the past," she says, such as the Florida count in the presidential election of 2000 "where a relatively small number of votes could have made a difference but didn't."

But sometimes an election is so close, isn't it possible that going to the polls can make a difference? "Why would I take the time to vote when my vote will end up subject to adjudication by justices that I didn't even get to vote for?" Parsley says. "It's an odd thing if you think about it. My vote, albeit not a directly proportionate one, ended up in the deciding hands of the unelected judiciary! This deters me from going to the polls even more."

She adds, "Alternatively, I might be in favor of a directly elected Supreme Court."

Maria Ratliff of Durham, N.C., a 36-year-old professional firefighter, feels that same estrangement from the process. "The current polarity," she says, "is really dismaying to many people."

Many voters, Ratliff says, feel that American politics has "just turned into a grudge match with the only point being for one side to prove that more people are on it than the other."

She adds: "I'm a huge liberal. But, seriously, a 1998 tape of [Delaware Republican Senate candidate] Christine O'Donnell -- looking like Elaine from Seinfeld -- talking about some weirdo date she had with a Wiccan? And that pertains to what issue? That's supposed to speak to me in what way?"

Despite her ambivalence about voting, Ratliff, like many Americans, believes she is "fairly obligated to vote" in November. "I just can't quite figure for whom. The idea of just pouting doesn't appeal to me -- well, at least not as much as I may need for it to in order to actually stay home. I will follow the results. They actually matter. So maybe there is my real answer about whether or not I'll cast my vote."

Choosing To Not Vote

People don't vote for all kinds of reasons. Some are disabled or too busy or without transportation. Some have emergencies on Election Day and others just out-and-out forget. And still others refuse to vote because of various personal convictions or religious beliefs.

Leonard Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post, did not vote for two dozen years or so. In 2008, he resigned from the newspaper. "I'm not a typical nonvoter," says Downie, who now teaches journalism at Arizona State University. "I abstained on journalistic principle after becoming managing editor in 1984."

Now, Downie, 68, says, he is registered to vote -- with no party affiliation -- in the District of Columbia. And what about the 2010 midterms? "I'll vote in November," he says.

Well, that's one vote for voting.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.