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The party of non-voters: Meet Colorado’s no-shows


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By Lars Gesing
CU News Corps

On an early Friday morning in October, only a couple of weeks before the midterm election, Hagen Reedy had almost pulled through another 8 a.m. journalism class at CU Boulder. She had patiently – and mostly quietly – endured yet another 50 minutes of discussing political news coverage. How much she, the aspiring travel photographer, hated talking about politics.

While some were already packing up their bags, one of her peers suddenly shifted gears, reminding everyone of their “civic duty” to be informed about political issues – and to exercise their right to vote.

Reedy couldn’t take it anymore. “It’s a right to choose to vote, not a right to vote,” she blurted, drawing sudden baffled attention. The class was over.

Hagen Reedy isn't interested in politics. She rather spends her time outdoors, taking photos.

Hagen Reedy isn’t interested in politics. She rather spends her time outdoors, taking photos.

Hagen Reedy does not vote. She has no plans to do so anytime soon.

***

The 20-year-old has lots of company. Like Reedy, almost every other of the just over four million Coloradans of voting age stayed home in the 2014 midterm election. Only 52 percent cast their ballots. If you count solely registered Colorado voters, that number grows ever so slightly, to 57 percent.

Who are these no-shows? Why do they avoid a trip to the ballot box like it was a visit to the dentist? And, now that this year’s midterms are history, how will the non-voters influence the looming 2016 presidential contest in the swing state Colorado?

“These are people who are very resistant to the embellishments of politicians,” said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster. The no-shows didn’t care about a 2014 election cycle loaded with just over $100 million worth of TV ads and endless get-out-the-vote efforts.

Ample political science research has long decoded your average non-voter: He or she is typically young, has a low socio-economic background and is poorly educated.

Eric Badiere doesn’t fit that scheme. Still, he doesn’t vote. Badiere, 45, a father of four, has seen the world. The software engineer worked in Europe. He follows international news. In 2008, the last time he voted, he campaigned for the Republican Party in Jefferson County, home to that part of the Colorado electorate that in the past often decided which party prevailed (“As Jefferson County goes, so goes Colorado,” they say). When Badiere sees his political leaders on TV today, what they stand for appalls him – so he decided to stop voting.

“It is totally disgusting how the government spends our tax money, like on wars and the bailouts,” he says. “”Once elected, there is no difference between the parties. What it comes down to is a waste of time.”

***

With many divergent reasons for people to stay away from the polls, there is no norm for the 2014 no-show.

“Nonvoters aren’t this block of people,” said Ellen Shearer, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. “They are different types of non-voters, and each of them needs a different approach to change their attitudes.”

In 1999, Shearer co-authored “Nonvoters: America’s No-Shows,” a collection of testimonies of stay-homers, filed into five overarching groups: Doers, Unpluggeds, Irritables, Don’t Knows and Alienateds (see graphic).

More than a decade later, in 2012, she did another survey – and came off with a set of half a dozen mostly new types: Pessimists, Too Busys, Strugglers, Tuned Outs, Active Faithfuls and Doers.

Non-voting, she found, had evolved. But not for the better.

Nonvoters
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In 1996, when Shearer first started classifying nonvoters, the largest group was Doers. “These are people who were sure their vote would count if only they voted,” she says. “What we found in 2012 was a different typology for the largest group of those who didn’t vote, and that is people who don’t believe their vote would count.”

“We need to encourage people to feel that they have a voice,” says Michael McDevitt, with a grain of frustration. The former San Francisco Bay Area reporter is now a political communications professor at CU Boulder. “With gridlock in Washington, D.C., that cynical view seems to be more credible because if there is gridlock, by definition branches of government are so partisan that nothing is going to happen.”

A recent Gallup poll shows that Americans have lost confidence in all branches of their government. Approval ratings of 29 percent for the president, 7 percent for Congress and 30 percent for the Supreme Court mark record lows.

Tim Mahon is one such “Pessimist.” The more populated, more advanced Front Range, he says, outpowers any decision that might come out of his hometown, Fort Morgan.

“People think differently here than they do along the Front Range,” he says. But when he does the math, he feels as if the more densely populated Denver Metro area is always going to forward its own agenda, forgetting about communities on the Eastern Plains.

***

For Shearer, the trends she found are more worrisome than political scientists usually admit. The scholars point to a long-term recovery in national turnout numbers, after a high in the 1960s and a slump throughout the mid-90s. 2014 was a major bump in the road though, as only one-in-three Americans, or 36.3 percent, cast a ballot in the midterm elections – the lowest turnout rate since World War II.

“Overall the percentage of people not voting is going down,” Shearer agrees. But she says there is another side to the math, which is that those who don’t vote are much less likely to be swayed to eventually do so.

As turnout rates traditionally recover and spike in presidential years, the 2016 contest will see a much larger number of voters. And yet, people like Reedy, Badiere and Mahon will stay home.

The no-shows most likely to be receptive for political bewitching, Shearer believes, are the Too-Busys – that part of the electorate that says it just can’t find the time to vote.

Like Cole Whitford from Brighton. The service operator at well giant Halliburton blames his job and long hours out on the oil fields of Eastern Colorado and Wyoming for his political tone deafness.

“I am just always at work,” he says, apologetically, as he admits that he doesn’t follow the news at all.

***

“Compared to other countries, one of the reasons our turnout is low is because we put a lot of barriers in front of our voters,” says Peter Hanson, a political scientist at the University of Denver. “We require them to register. We require them to re-register if they move. Oftentimes they have to do this way ahead of Election Day. And recently we have started requiring them to show ID at the polls.”

These factors are what Hanson’s colleague Kenneth Bickers, a political science professor at CU Boulder, labels “the cost of voting.” In the spirit of getting the ballot back to the clerk as quickly and hassle-free as possible, Coloradans appreciated new voter laws, which allowed for same-day registration and all mail-in ballots this year, he says.

But being able to mail in your ballot has another advantage.

Bickers, a traditionalist who says he misses the “ceremonial pageantry” of waiting in line to pull the big lever in a small booth as a democratic act of symbolic value, says ballot complexity can also easily depress turnout.

“It’s not just, ‘How do I feel about the Senate or gubernatorial race?’” he says. “If you are going to vote, then you will have to get a lot more information. If you are voting at your breakfast table, then you’ve got more time and more resources to use.”

Remember Hagen Reedy? One of the reasons she is staying away from the polls, she says, is because of all those in line who “get involved two minutes before they vote,” with the respective line on the ballot being the first thing they read about a specific issue. She says she’d rather not vote at all than make an uninformed decision.

***

The question then becomes: Where do (non)voters get their information?

Campaign strategists like to believe that the $105 million they spent on TV advertising this year helped push the needle their way. As a comparison: In 2012, during the presidential campaign season, the grand ad buy total was $73 million, according to a Kantar Media/CMAG analysis.

But sophisticated partisan spin dressed up as information confuses rather than clarifies, intimidates rather than emboldens voters, believes longtime advertising professional Kelty Logan, who now teaches at the University of Colorado.

Logan, a former Capitol Hill intern in the office of Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) – who later served as vice president under Jimmy Carter – acknowledged that the ads particularly helped energize the Republican base. But she is convinced that endless hours of attack ads dominating TV screens across the state in the weeks leading up to the election caused many to tune out and stay home.

“There is clear evidence that people didn’t show up because of negative advertising,” she says. “But I am wondering if it is negative advertising isolated, or if it is negative advertising compounded by the fact that people are bombarded with the fact that everyone is lying.”

The debate over whether negative advertising drives people to or away from the polls is as old as the attack ads themselves.

The non-partisan Cook Political Report found that Colorado ranked number one in negative advertising among Senate and governor’s races nationwide. But the election analysts estimate that the non-stop attacks fired up many voters and actually increased turnout in Colorado by as much as 7 percent in 2014. That adds up to almost 150,000 ballots.

That finding contradicts what Steven Pearlstein, a Robinson professor of political and international affairs at George Mason University and a Washington Post columnist, believes to be the true objective of campaigns when they use attack ads.

“Negative advertising isn’t about changing minds; it’s about altering the composition of the voter pool on Election Day by turning moderate voters into non-voters,” he wrote in 2012.

That strategy worked with Melanie Iredale, a mother of three grown-up boys from Hudson. She says if every candidate is lying, none of them deserve her vote. The commercial breaks on TV during campaign season reminded her of a high school election. But then again, she says to herself, “at least high school kids have a little bit of pride in how they talk about each other.”

***

Colorado GOP Chairman Ryan Call is eager to challenge such depressed outlooks. He says his party exemplifies how trust can be restored.

“One thing we learned more than anything is that we need to have a year-round, full-time Republican Party,” Call says. “We made the promise on the campaign trail that after the elections, we weren’t going anywhere.”

While the GOP gained the edge in Colorado with the help of a coherent message, Kelty Logan says Democratic voters were disenfranchised by their elected leaders, who talked about them, but not to them.

If even target groups such as women stay home in large numbers, the alienation reinforces itself, political scientist Kenneth Bickers says.

“The Democratic Party used to represent the working class in America,” he says. “Certainly they talked about the minimum wage. But for people who are not at risk of making the minimum wage, there is no message.” The problem then becomes that “it allows the party to not even notice what it is not talking about, because these people aren’t there, saying, ‘You got to talk to us because these are the issues we really care about.’”

In the wake of an election post mortem, the Democratic National Committee reacted and created a “Victory Task Force.” The ten-member board includes Colorado Democratic Chairman Rick Palacio, who will help his national colleagues to review what went wrong for them this year.

Colorado Republicans, on the other hand, are looking to expand their existing outreach infrastructure to keep talking to voters long before the 2016 election cycle picks up speed.

Democratic analysts trust that the 2016 presidential election will bring their voters back to the polls. “It is harder to articulate why a midterm matters because there isn’t this single change agent,” said one strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing an ongoing evaluation process.

History is speckled with campaign slogans and messages that spurred hope – and consequently higher turnout. Take Ronald Reagan’s, “Morning in America.” Or, more recently, Barack Obama’s, “Yes We Can.”

But today?

Nili Benson, a conservative mother of two, works for a non-profit financial literacy program for K-12 students, voted for Obama’s “Change.” This year, she stayed home, regretting her 2012 choice, questioning her judgment.

She says politicians such as President Obama “made all those promises, and obviously they could never do what they said they were going to do.”

***

A lot of ink has been spilled over President Obama’s negative influence on Democrats’ re-election odds across the country this year. But back when he was first elected to the White House, the former senator from Illinois managed to achieve something none of the candidates this year did.

He excited the most notorious group of nonvoters – young people.

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University in Massachusetts expects youth turnout in Colorado to have fallen to just under 30 percent this year. That is almost exactly the same number as in 2010, when 29.6 percent of Coloradans under 30 went to the polls.

Support from millennials is a key success ingredient for any Democratic candidate. But this year, a lot of them voted Republican – while a majority still didn’t vote at all.

“We are a generation that cares a lot more about pragmatic solutions than ideological posturing,” DNC Youth Media Director Rob Flaherty says as he is trying to explain why young voters didn’t want to jump on the Democratic bandwagon on this year’s campaign trail. He says young voters care a lot more about seeing results and getting things done. “The reality is that young people want to see Washington work again.”

Another reality, a pill much harder to swallow for the DNC, is that focusing time, energy and resources to turn out college students can only go so far.

First Lady Michelle Obama campaigned for Sen. Mark Udall at Colorado State University. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., did the same at CU-Boulder. Now Senator-elect Cory Gardner, then the Republican contestant, showed up at CSU and at another venue close to campus in Boulder. And CIRCLE data shows that competitive races, such as Colorado’s Senate contest, do in fact have a positive impact on voter turnout, especially among the youth.

But in its post-election analysis, the CIRCLE researchers slammed the parties’ youth outreach for almost exclusively focusing on college campuses. Only 37 percent of Coloradans have a college degree, according to Census data. That number is even lower among young Latinos and African-Americans.

But often enough, what the parties say won’t make a difference in the mind of a young (non)voter either way.

“They are still starting their careers, most of them don’t have their own children,” Mike McDevitt says. “They’ve had less time walking the planet to develop interests that translate into the political realm.”

In October, McDevitt published a study, which found that active political parenting can serve as a catalyst of active citizenship and civic engagement among their children.

Nili Benson talks to her kids, 18 and 20, about voting – and about non-voting. They share her insecurity. “They didn’t want to make the wrong decision either,” she says. Classroom discussions would help, she thinks. “Even mock voting in school, or anything to walk them through the process.”

Because now, most young voters just shrug off any political conversation. The collective sentiment: Why bother?

Bryan Albright doesn’t. As an accounting student in his senior year at CU Boulder, he says he is “not in the real world yet.” Most policies, he thinks, don’t affect him. He did vote once – to legalize marijuana.

***

So what if there was an election and (almost) no one showed up?

Scott Ellis, 43, Lafayette: “By not participating in the process, you don’t imply consent with the outcome”

Scott Ellis, 43, Lafayette: “By not participating in the process, you don’t imply consent with the outcome” Click the photo to read his full testimony.

The academic research suggests that people who don’t vote are literally being left out of the political system.

“Parties and politicians have to decide what they are going to focus on, and they are going to focus on the things that people who vote care about the most because that’s how they get power and hold power,” political scientist Kenneth Bickers says.

What that effectively means, Ellen Shearer adds, is that if the voters tend to be older, programs such as Medicare and Social Security are safe. But, “If you had a younger electorate, which will have the burden of paying for the Social Security, politicians are going to note, ‘Wait, our electorate is young. We need to take their interest into account, too.’”

***

Hagen Reedy sits in a coffee shop near Boulder’s picturesque campus, lost in her thoughts, wondering how she arrived at the belief that her vote would remain unnoticed.

“Not voting is so not like me,” she says. “I believe that even a simple smile can make all the difference.”

Contact Lars Gesing at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @LarsGesing

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Explanatory multimedia reporting from CU Boulder journalism students
The party of non-voters: Meet Colorado’s no-shows