ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA —
It’s a Wednesday afternoon American government class in the diverse Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia. A group of students is arguing passionately and thoughtfully about gun control. They represent a range of ethnicities and races, but they are all young.
They’re attending an affordable college to earn a degree so they can get good jobs — but they have no interest in voting.
Presidential front-runners Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s historic negative ratings among American voters will probably do little to change their minds and an unfortunate reality from the last presidential election: Only about half of all Americans eligible to vote actually go to the voting booth.
According to Pew Research surveys of the 2014 and 2012 general elections, nonvoters overwhelmingly tend to be from groups that could be most impacted by government policies, like these students.
“Nonvoters tend to be younger, more financially strapped, more likely to be minorities. People who are likely voters tend to be older, whiter, more financially secure,” says Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the Pew Research Center.
Unhappy with choices
The students say the choice not to vote is brought on by a lack of choice.
“I joke around all the time in class and say, ‘I wish we could just reroll the dice and get some new candidates because these guys are just crazy,' ” says Cody Berges, 24, who served in the military and now wants to study history.
Berges is attracted to Trump’s proposal to prevent illegal immigration with a border wall but says the candidate “just seems overly extreme on the conservative side, and Bernie Sanders seems like a socialist in most people’s eyes, and Hillary seems like she would be too liberal for the moderates in the middle.”
He voted for Marco Rubio in the Virginia primary election, but Berges says Election Day in November will be difficult.
“I want to go vote," he says, "but if I can’t support someone wholeheartedly, then I can’t go.”
Put off by past, passion
According to Doherty, more than a third of nonvoters are under 30. The frustration echoed by Derges’ classmates helps reveal why that may be.
“We are uninformed, but it’s not because we don’t care,” says sophomore Rob Carter, 20. “I think it’s because the landscape of politics that Hillary represents, and that’s been represented since we were kids, has been alienating us.”
Like many nonvoters, Carter describes himself as leaning liberal on political and social issues. He says he can’t see himself ever voting until there is a change in politicians’ tone.
“I don’t like the extremist atmosphere that is politics nowadays — sort of the shouting, who is more extreme, who is more passionate,” he says.
Carter sees Trump’s blunt, unfiltered style as a possible way out.
“He’s like a TV show character but so calculated and good," he says. "I respect that, and I hope that’s what politics are in the future — not acting as much.”
“Secretary Clinton was my role model back in middle school,” says junior Lauren Reyes, 21. She says she thought Clinton was “the greatest thing on the planet,” but she won’t vote for her in the first presidential election she’s eligible to vote in.
“The way that she’s trying to acquire votes from people of color and from minorities is incredibly embarrassing on her part,” Reyes says of how Clinton lost her vote. “I know she’s trying to relate to what people are doing, but it’s hard to relate when you haven’t had to go through what they go through.”
Many of the students described the remaining presidential candidates as “characters” or “reality show candidates.” They said they wanted a candidate who could relate to their personal experiences.
Relatability is particularly important when considering the demographic makeup of a nonvoter. Doherty says there is “a very strong racial gap” between white voters and minority nonvoters, and the differences in financial background are even more striking.
“Only about half of nonvoters told us they had a credit card,” he said. “They’re less likely to attend college and have lower incomes.”
Morality of voting
“I’m just really confused,” says Reyes, whose mother emigrated from El Salvador. “Should I vote? Should I not vote? It’s morally confusing.”
She cares deeply about reproductive rights and immigration but sees no alternatives beyond Clinton. Reyes will count among the millions of so-called disengaged voters this election, but she is engaged enough to note that local and state elections often mean more for daily life.
An April 2016 Rasmussen poll found that 6 percent of Americans said they would stay home if the choice was between Trump and Clinton. That decision is particularly difficult for freshman Carolina Escalante, 18. The daughter of two Salvadorian immigrants who fled to the United States says she will not vote in her first election because she already understands the impact her choice can have.
“I don’t want to make a decision, then maybe one of these candidates will do something,” she says. “I shouldn’t be like, ‘Oh, I voted for him,’ and feel guilty about it.”