Why 90 million Americans won’t vote in November

Call them the unlikely voters.

A nationwide USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll of people who are eligible to vote but aren’t likely to do so finds that these stay-at-home Americans back Obama’s re-election over Republican Mitt Romney by more than 2-1. Two-thirds of them say they are registered to vote. Eight in 10 say the government plays an important role in their lives.

Even so, they cite a range of reasons for declaring they won’t vote or saying the odds are no better than 50-50 that they will: They’re too busy. They aren’t excited about either candidate. Their vote doesn’t really matter. And nothing ever gets done, anyway.

“I don’t think Obama helped us as much as he promised,” says John Harrington, 52, a heavy-equipment operator from Farmington, Minn., who was among those surveyed. Since 2008, when Harrington voted for Obama, the financial downturn has forced him to sell his home in Arizona, move to Minnesota to be near a daughter and put him on the road to Nebraska, North Dakota and Iowa to find work.

His wife “loves” Obama and is sure to vote in November, but he’s not certain whether he’ll get there this time.

Even in 2008, when turnout was the highest in any presidential election since 1960, almost 80 million eligible citizens didn’t vote. Curtis Gans, director of the non-partisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate, predicts that number will rise significantly this year. He says turnout could ebb to levels similar to 2000, when only 54.2% of those eligible to vote cast a ballot. That was up a bit from 1996, which had the lowest turnout since 1924.

This year, perhaps 90 million Americans who could vote won’t. “The long-term trend tends to be awful,” Gans says. “There’s a lot of lack of trust in our leaders, a lack of positive feelings about political institutions, a lack of quality education for large segments of the public, a lack of civic education, the fragmenting effects of waves of communications technology, the cynicism of the coverage of politics — I could go on with a long litany.”

There’s also the relentlessly negative tone of this year’s campaign. The majority of TV ads don’t try to persuade voters to support one candidate but rather to convince them not to back the other guy. Romney ads portray Obama as a failed president and a liar. Obama ads describe Romney as a heartless corporate raider whose firm has laid off American workers while he parked some of his fortune in a Swiss bank account. (Both candidates dispute the truthfulness of the other side’s commercials.)

“I really don’t know much about him, but from what I hear, he’s all about putting taxes on the middle-class people, and I’ve heard that he’s put his money in overseas accounts,” Jamie Palmer, 35, a mother of three from St. Joseph, Mo., says of Romney, echoing accusations made in Democratic ads. “I think that’s wrong.”

So will she vote? Not a chance.

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