August 18, 1996 in Nation/World

No-Show ‘96 Americans Who Don’t Vote Nonvoters Not Who You Think Educated, Relatively Affluent Make Up Larger Portion Than Most Assume

Mary Dittrich And Michael M. Lazerow Medill News Service

It’s not as if 49-year-old Nancy Koscher doesn’t care about public affairs.

The owner of a small carpet-installation business in Elkhart, Ind., Koscher strongly supports abortion rights, raises money for the Elkhart Red Cross chapter and closely follows her local school board.

But Koscher didn’t vote in 1992, and probably won’t vote again this November.

Nearly half of the nation’s eligible voters typically stay home on Election Day. It’s been that way since 1930. In Washington and Idaho the figures are a little more promising - the states had turnouts of 61 percent and 66 percent, respectively, in 1992.

Koscher and many nonvoting Americans contradict the popular stereotype of being poorer, younger and less educated than voters, according to a Medill News Service poll for The Spokesman-Review.

The scientific telephone survey of 1,001 likely nonvoters found that only about one nonvoter in seven actually conforms to this stereotype, which scholars have touted for more than three decades.

In fact, there is great variety among Americans who don’t vote, the nationwide survey showed.

Koscher falls into a category the researchers dubbed “Doers.” Educated and relatively affluent, they have many characteristics of voters.

But they don’t vote.

Nonvoters who most closely reflect the stereotype of the nonvoter actually make up a much smaller group, researchers found. They labeled that group “Alienated.”

There’s not a single type of nonvoter, said Dwight Morris, president of The Campaign Study Group in Washington, D.C., which administered the survey.

“The public debate now is based on a view of nonvoters that is not accurate,” he said.

Nonvoters hold strong opinions, and many of them are not as divergent from voters as some might think, the poll revealed.

Many also are rather optimistic and hold fairly high opinions of the government. The survey found:

65 percent agree with the statement, “As Americans, we can always find a way to solve our problems and get what we want.”

More than 50 percent agree the federal government does a “better job than people give it credit for.”

83 percent say the government should play “an active role” in improving the lives of middle-income families.

Some local scholars were surprised with the findings.

“I agree with the categories, but I am surprised that the Doers are the largest and the Alienated are the smallest,” said Tony Stewart, a political scientist at North Idaho College. “It represents a reversal of the data for many decades.”

Pam Behring, president of the Spokane chapter of the League of Women Voters, said the views of nonvoters are normally not that different from the views of voters.

“I think for the most part the results of elections do reflect the sentiments of the country as a whole,” she said.

Experts have said for decades that inconvenience and mobility are among the leading reasons people traditionally do not vote. But only 20 percent of nonvoters said they didn’t vote in 1992 because they were not registered.

That may be even less of a factor in Washington and Idaho, where registration is easy. Idaho residents can register when they vote, and Washington residents can sign up as little as 15 days before Election Day.

“Of all the regions in the U.S.,” Stewart said, “the Pacific Northwest has the best registration and turnout rate.”

Mobility also is not a major obstacle in voting, according to the survey, which found very little consensus among nonvoters about why they don’t vote.

Twelve percent said they didn’t like the candidates, another 12 percent were not old enough four years ago even though they are of age now, and 10 percent gave no particular reason. Sixty-six percent have lived at their present address for more than two years.

Only 14 percent of the likely nonvoters said they were not registered to vote because they recently moved.

The most common reason people gave for not being registered was that they “don’t care much about politics.” One person in five listed that reason.

Walter Dean Burnham, a government professor at the University of Texas, argued that dwindling voter participation is a result of weakened political parties.

The poll seems to support this thesis. Forty-six percent described themselves as independents and 32 percent think there’s not much difference between the two parties.

But 54 percent of likely nonvoters, like Kelly Smith of Dayton, Wash., didn’t think there should be a third major political party or didn’t feel strongly either way.

“I don’t really know what (party) I am,” said Smith, who works construction and makes less than $30,000 a year. “I think there should just be one party.”

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, D.C., agreed the decline of party identification is one reason people don’t vote. But he was more concerned about “the atomizing effects” of television.

More than half of the likely nonvoters read a newspaper fewer than four days a week. But 68 percent reported watching the evening news at least four days each week.

Gans contends that television is destroying the civic fabric of the country by making people “spectators and consumers of politics rather than participants and stockholders.”

xxxx Final edition headline: Nonvoters aren’t non-achievers

These sidebars appeared with the story: ABOUT THIS SERIES “No-Show ‘96: Americans Who Don’t Vote” was researched and written by the Medill News Service staff. Reporters include Mary Dittrich, who served this summer as a reporter in Washington, D.C., for The Spokesman-Review. Poll results are based on telephone interviews last month with 1,001 nonvoters and 2,322 voters. Nonvoters were defined as those who said they did not vote in the 1992 presidential election, are not registered to vote at their current address, and definitely or probably won’t vote in November. The overall margin of error in the poll is plus or minus 3 percentage points, although the margin of error for subgroups is larger. Spokesman-Review stories based on the poll results include: Today: Nonvoters are different than experts think. Monday: Political activists try to get nonvoters to the polls. Nonvoters call themselves conservative, but agree with some liberal themes. Tuesday: If nonvoters started voting, would it matter?

IT’S NOT TOO LATE Want to become a voter? Washington residents can register to vote in the November election by picking up forms at most libraries and fire stations, as well as at their county elections office.

Sidebar from the Idaho edition: IT’S NOT TOO LATE Want to become a voter? In North Idaho, residents can register to vote at the polls or at their county elections office. For more information in Kootenai County, call the voter registration office at (208) 769-4428.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email