EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. — Like nearly half of all the eligible voters in her county in 2016, Keyana Fedrick did not vote.
Four years later, politics has permeated her corner of northeastern Pennsylvania. Someone sawed a hole in a large Trump sign near one of her jobs. The election office in her county is so overwhelmed with demand that it took over the coroner’s office next door. Her parents, both Democrats born in the 1950s, keep telling her she should vote for Joe Biden. Anything is better than President Donald Trump, they say.
But Fedrick, who works two jobs, at a hotel and at a department store, does not trust either of the two main political parties, because nothing in her 31 years of life has led her to believe that she could. She says they abandon voters like “a bad mom or dad who promises to come and see you, and I’m sitting outside with my bags packed and they never show up.”
That is why Fedrick does not regret her decision in 2016 to skip the voting booth. In fact, she plans to repeat it this year — something that she and a friend have started to hide from people they know.
“We said we’re just going to lie, like ‘Oh yeah, I voted,” she said. “I don’t feel like getting crucified for what I think.”
As the presidential campaign reaches its final week, early-voting turnout in a number of states has been higher than last time, mail-in ballot requests are surging and some are predicting the highest turnout in many decades. But if history is any indication, a significant portion of Americans will not participate, a signal of distrust and disillusionment with the political system that spans the partisan divide.
Voting is fundamentally an act of hope. But since the 1960s, between a third and a half of eligible voters have stayed home during presidential elections, one of the lowest rates among America’s developed peers. Since the early 1900s, the high point for presidential turnout was in 1960, when 63.8% of eligible adults voted, according to the United States Elections Project that tracks voting data back to 1789. Most recently, the highest peak was in 2008, when 61.6% turned out.
An analysis of Census Bureau survey data from the 2016 election shows a deep class divide: Americans who did not vote were more likely to be poor, less likely to have a college degree, and more likely to be a single parent than the people who voted. They were also less likely to be in the labor force.
The data give a comprehensive look at who voted and who did not, and while no two elections are the same, it points to patterns for why some people are more likely to vote than others.
Not voting has been a feature of the American political landscape for decades. But with razor slim margins in a number of swing states last time, nonvoters have taken on an outsize importance: Even a small victory in converting some of them may tip the scales.
Consider Pennsylvania. More than 3.5 million eligible voters in the state did not cast ballots for president in the 2016 election, a number that dwarfed Trump’s slender margin of 44,292. Monroe County, the Pocono Mountain vacation spot where Fedrick lives, is a microcosm of the state. About 56,000 eligible adults stayed home, more than 100 times Hillary Clinton’s 532-vote margin of victory.
In interviews in Monroe County this month, some of the people who did not vote in 2016 said they planned to vote this year. The stakes were too high to miss it, they said.
“I never thought I’d be bothered with this crap, but now it really counts,” said Jack Breglia, 49, a retired tow truck driver in Kunkletown, Pennsylvania. He could not remember the last time he voted but said he planned to vote for Trump this time.
But many others said they would not. They expressed a profound distrust of politics and doubted their vote would have an effect. They felt a sense of foreboding about the country and saw politics as one of the main forces doing the threatening. Many were not particularly partisan and said they shrank from people who were.
“I try to avoid it because it gets angry and nasty,” said Susan Miller, 42, a waitress at Compton’s Pancake House in Stroudsburg, who said she had voted once in her life, for Barack Obama in 2008.
One predictor of political engagement is growing up in a family that talked about politics. Miller did not. And she is so sick of the one person in her life who is loudly insisting that she vote — an aunt who supports Trump — that she has started simply pretending that she will.
Like many people interviewed for this article, Miller was scrambling to pay rent and buy groceries. Monroe County’s unemployment rate stood at around 13% in August, as the pandemic bit into the county’s tourism industry. Her tips have fallen by half and she is now working for Instacart to make up the difference. Two close relatives have died of COVID-19.
“Politics? It’s the least of my worries,” she said.
She said she would vote again “if the right person came in.”
But Biden is not that person, she said. Miller said she had not watched any of the debates or kept up with the candidates.
“I’m just trying to make it through,” she said.
In recent decades, richer, more educated people are far more likely to vote. In the 2016 analysis, about three quarters of those living in households earning at least $150,000 voted, compared with less than half of those in households earning less than $25,000. About 76% of college graduates voted, compared with 52% of people with just a high school degree.
Marriage mattered, too: Just 45% of single women who had children and were eligible to vote cast ballots compared with 70% of married mothers.
Jennifer Martin, 46, a single mother waiting in line in her car at the Pleasant Valley Ecumenical Network food pantry in Sciota, Pennsylvania, said last time she voted she was in her 20s. Politics, she said, has little relevance to her life. The two political parties seemed about the same.
A recent study found that people like Martin who do not follow politics closely have different concerns from those who do. For example, they say that low hourly wages are among the most important problems facing the country. For hard partisans, who are more likely to vote, the issue barely registers.
“I work at a day care where they pay their workers nothing,” she said. “That’s why I have to come to places like this to feed my family.”
Might the election change things?
“I’m not interested in it,” she said.
Fedrick was one of those who stayed away in 2016, but not because she was not following the news. She has become increasingly angry at the American political system, which she believes is tilted against Black people like her and people who are poor.
She grew up in Newark, New Jersey, whose failing schools and violent streets prompted her parents — an art teacher and a city bus driver — to move to East Stroudsburg when she was 12.
College was a stretch financially. She said she has tried twice for associate degrees, but has not finished either. She ended up with $5,000 in debt. At 31, she is still living with her mother.
Her father, who grew up in rural Georgia in the 1960s, keeps telling her things have gotten better. Government can be responsive, even if it is slow. Voting matters.
She sees no evidence of progress. Minimum wage has been stuck for more than a decade and the problems of police violence against Black people, joblessness and incarceration only seem to get worse.
“We need to break up with the system,” she said. “This system wasn’t designed for us to win.”
Just 47% of African Americans under 30 voted in 2016, compared with nearly 70% of those over 65, a pattern of youth disenchantment common to Americans of all races and ethnicities
Many interviewed in Monroe County said they felt their vote did not matter, pointing to the contested 2000 presidential election and to Trump losing the popular vote. Some said they thought powerful insiders were the ones who really decided.
“We love you and we wish you good luck,” said Fannie Sanchez, 44, a New York-born daughter of Colombian immigrants, of voters. People who do not vote “already saw that there’s something being maneuvered back there. We just unplug ourselves.”
Sanchez is part of a demographic that also had low turnout in 2016: American-born Hispanics. She said in 2008 she swallowed her cynicism and cast the first vote in her life, for Obama.
“I had to just close my eyes and say, ‘If this is fake, I don’t care. I want to be part of this.’”
But she did not vote for him again. Politicians are noisy, but ultimately of no use.
“They rent space in my brain and they frustrate me, but in the end, they do what they want anyway,” she said.
The sheer toxicity of politics is also having an effect. Kyle Marsh, 23, an operations manager for a beer wholesaler, is not particularly political, but most around him are. His mother, a nurse, is furious at Trump. His friends are angry, too. On Instagram recently, one said, “imagine being dumb enough to vote for the worst person in history?” The post made him uncomfortable: He has a friend who likes Trump. But he kept quiet.
“Do you know how many friends I’d lose if I say something?” he said. Voting means being part of the outrage. That is why he will opt out.
Others see a reason to vote this time. Latoya Garrison, a single mother who works nights at a factory putting safety seals on cosmetics, did not vote in 2016. But the coronavirus changed her mind this time. Her tips waitressing at the Roasted Tomato dwindled to $30 a day, and this fall, a social services agency helped her pay rent.
“I’m looking for who is more into controlling this virus, so we can go back to normal,” she said. “I don’t care about anything else.”
The week before last, she voted by mail for Biden.