On the morning of Monday, September 13, a white Ford truck with a grouchy engine pulled out of a garage in Muskegon, Mich., and headed toward the airport. Many other vehicles were going in the same direction -- cars and vans and caravans of buses chartered for the day. Up in the sky, somewhere to the east, an airplane was en route as well, carrying the president of the United States.
In just an hour or so, the airport would play host to some grass-roots politics at its greenest -- a presidential appearance in a key region of a battleground state in an election some think will be too close to call.
Ted Prus, 37, at the Muskegon, Mich., construction company where he works.
(J. Carl Ganter)
Muskegon is a hurtin' place. Its downtown is desolate, the most impressive landmark being a pair of enormous sand dunes, six stories high, in an empty lot right across from the tattoo parlor. They're pulverized concrete, all that remains of a downtown mall that was returned into dust after the businesses fled for the 'burbs.
The city needed a boost, and the president needed a forum that mattered; hence, this convergence at the airport. If the heady populism of the day was tempered a bit by elitist logistics -- attendance was invitation-only, invitations only going to the Republican faithful -- few of the invitees seemed to mind. Two thousand Bush supporters, faces beaming, were trundling toward the airport in all those vehicles.
The face in the cab of the old white truck, however, was not beaming. It was resolute. Its eyes were flinty and businesslike. The truck was a coughing, irascible mess. If this had been a movie, the music would have swelled ominously, because, from a cinematic perspective, the man at the wheel looked less like a presidential supporter than a presidential assassin.
This was real life, however, and at the last minute, the truck turned harmlessly west, away from the airport, down a residential lane and into a driveway. Out walked Ted Prus, masonry worker, with a hammer in his hand. Ted's job for the day was to help turn a big old hole in the ground into someone's garage.
The president's job for the day was to deliver a speech on health care, a subject on which Ted might well have taken an interest. Ted is 37 and makes $15 an hour, unless it rains, in which case he makes nothing. His main experience with health care is not having it -- a situation that, despite his youth appearance, is not exactly irrelevant. Twice in the last few years, Ted had seizures that left him unconscious. Once, it happened on the banks of a river he was fishing; had his best friend, Brian, not been there to drag him out of the water, he likely would have drowned. Ted could barely scrape together the $400 a doctor charged him to tell him that she didn't know what was wrong with him and that he'd have to see a specialist. The specialist was out of the question, financially, so Ted just keeps his fingers crossed and worries about those frequent headaches.
Ted also has no dental insurance. This, too, is not irrelevant. A few years ago, when a balky molar began to bark, Ted did not see a dentist. Instead, he says, he sat in his kitchen, loosened the tooth with a pocket knife and then yanked it out with pliers from his tackle box.
The presidential appearance had been all over the news in Muskegon for more than a week, but Ted hadn't heard about it until the day before, and only because someone told him. He doesn't read the papers much, except for NASCAR results and sometimes the classifieds. On TV, for information, he watches the Weather Channel or the farm reports.
It was a nice day. As Ted wielded his hammer, something amazing happened, something that a hack writer -- an abuser of cliches searching for a perfect moment soaked in irony and pregnant with meaning -- would not dare make up. Air Force One roared directly overhead.
Ted didn't even look up. Because, when it comes to politics, as Ted will tell you himself, he just doesn't give a rat's ass.
MOST AMERICANS WHO ARE ELIGIBLE TO VOTE, DON'T.
It may be hard to believe, and harder to accept, but the numbers are inescapable. In recent presidential elections -- the quadrennial events that are the pinnacle for voter turnout -- roughly half the potential voting population chose not to exercise its franchise. For some off-year elections, barely a quarter of eligible voters show up. Even this year's ballyhooed spike in registration is considered unlikely to boost turnout to 60 percent, or anywhere near.
In short, there is no political force more to be reckoned with, no constituency potentially more influential, no voting bloc potentially mightier, than those who are too lazy or indifferent or disaffected or angry to go to the polls. The candidate of a Nonvoters Party would win in a cakewalk. You know, theoretically.
The voice of their silence is deafening. It may be, as some studies suggest, that their political preferences would mirror those of voters, anyway. But the sheer number of nonvoters is so great that, in a close election, even the most minuscule difference in their pattern of preference could be decisive. If only they would vote.
Nonvoting is, many say, a national disgrace. The United States is practically first among world democracies in voter apathy: Only Switzerland has lower turnout in elections to choose its leaders, but Switzerland is a case unto itself. The Swiss don't care all that much about who governs them, because, in a sense, they govern themselves: Almost every significant issue of public policy is put to a plebiscite.
There's no such ready explanation for what happens here; in fact, it defies intuition. Over the last half-century, many of the historical impediments to voting have been lifted -- educational opportunities have improved among all demographics; Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised Southern blacks have been taken off the books; complicated registration procedures have been streamlined. And yet, since 1960, voting rates have been steadily declining.
Political scientists point to several reasons, among them the ascendancy of negative campaigning, which tends to sour voters on the candidates and on politics in general. Some cite the fact that, in the era of cable TV, we have too many choices of where we obtain our information, making it easier to ignore politics in favor of entertainment. Actually, politics used to provide entertainment; historians have observed that in other eras, people felt about their parties much as they do, today, about their sports teams. Turn-of-the-century urban political clubs sponsored neighborhood athletic teams, and their meeting houses served as social clubs. That sort of generations-long loyalty and blind partisan devotion is gone, even among the politically astute. Involvement in all civic areas has declined.
Most political experts see low voter turnout as a problem to be fixed. Earnest citizen-advocacy literature -- the sort of things passed out at polling places and party headquarters -- makes the passionate argument that every vote counts. Those documents tend to include long, familiar lists of important matters decided by one vote (Thomas Jefferson wins the presidency; Texas enters the Union; France becomes a republic). Unfortunately, such examples, while well-intentioned, are bogus. All of the "elections" cited are not popular votes but votes within legislatures, where one-vote majorities are not only commonplace but typically are illusory -- the deliberate result of leadership compromises on issues.
Every vote, to be impolitic, does not count and never has. In America, no presidential election, no gubernatorial election, no U.S. senatorial election has ever been decided by a single vote at the polls.
All of this raises a valid, if impertinent question: When it comes to voting or not voting, why should any individual give a rat's ass?
One of the more intriguing books about nonvoting, To Vote or Not to Vote, actually begins by wondering why anyone votes at all. Author Andre Blais tries to answer this question by applying the modern economist's favorite scientific model, the Rational Choice Theory. Rational Choice analyzes human decision-making based on a fairly simple mathematical cost-benefit ratio. Blais, who is a Rational Choice acolyte, winds up basically throwing up his hands. The costs of voting (registering, going to the polls, waiting in line, etc.) so outweigh any palpable benefits (no vote is ever likely to directly influence anything) that the model essentially falls apart.
Can it be that those who don't vote are the most rational among us? If a single vote is without influence, isn't casting one illogical?
Mathematically speaking, sure. Even in Florida, even in 2000, the breathtakingly narrow margin in the official vote tally was hundreds of times larger than one person's vote.
But there is something profoundly unsettling about the idea that voting is, basically, senseless. That may be because mathematical logic is not the only type of rigorous reasoning. Moral and political philosophers have spent centuries mulling civic duties and obligations. Perhaps that's the place to look for guidance, because deciding whether to vote is not so much a question of math as a matter of morals.
Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher, lived in an era of monarchy; his works never directly addressed the issue of voting. But he addressed, at great length, issues of moral responsibility. In his treatise on the Categorical Imperative, Kant concluded that all human actions, if moral, must be taken not to achieve what is best for you, or even to accomplish a particular result you desire. The moral act, he said, is the one which, if universalized, would result in the greatest good. In other words, in a given situation, minor or momentous, the moral person acts the way he would want everyone to act if they were faced with a similar choice.
What would happen if, literally, not a single person voted? Jefferson's Grand Experiment ends in ignominy. Anarchy reigns. Regional warlords rise to power in a return to a feudal state. There are medieval codes of honor, indentured servitude, after-dinner floggings.
Hence, Kant would argue, the only moral choice is to vote.
Implicitly, we understand this. In a totalitarian state, voting is a distant dream; in a democracy, it is a civic obligation. But that still leaves the United States with low voter turnout, for which we have no ready explanation.
All we have are more questions: Since nonvoters tend to be less politically knowledgeable than voters -- all polls confirm this -- might it not be worse if these particular people cast an ignorant ballot? Who needs them?
And: If voting is a matter of morals, and America practically leads the world in nonvoting, are we an amoral country? Is something else in play?
To help find the answers, we decided to talk to a typical nonvoter. Unfortunately, since half of America doesn't vote, it's no more possible to find a "typical" nonvoter than it would be to find a "typical" woman. So, instead, this is what we did:
We asked The Washington Post pollsters to generate a list of people who, when telephoned in the last few months for their political views, had identified themselves as nonvoters. This was basically a list of discarded calls; no one conducting political preference polls particularly cares what nonvoters think. We did.
We took a list of 90-odd names, eliminated those people who were not from battleground states (we wanted people with resonant nonvotes) and then started telephoning. To eliminate any bias in our choice, we decided to profile the very first person who agreed. The first name on the list, as it happens, was Ted Prus. Here is how the call went:
"Hi. This is The Washington Post. Are you registered to vote?"
"Are you planning on voting?"
"We'd like to write a long story about you. Would you be interested? It would make you famous."
"You mean a famous idiot?"
"Actually, we're not sure. There's no guarantee one way or the other."