GLENVILLE, W.Va. — Charlotte Greenleaf won’t be voting on Tuesday. Neither will anyone else in her family. Never have, never will, she says.
It’s not that she’s too busy. Greenleaf, 60, is unemployed and trying to make it on disability benefits, plus the pigs and chickens she raises on a small farm near this scruffy town in central West Virginia. And it’s not that she’s satisfied with how things are. Unhappy with President Trump, she quoted her mother: “If you don’t got nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.”
No, this is why she’s not voting: She figures the country’s leaders are chosen by rich and powerful people far from any place she’s ever been. “My favorite subject in school was history, and I learned that’s how it’s always been,” Greenleaf said. “Politicians just think about themselves.” So she tunes them out: Doesn’t read the news, doesn’t watch it on TV. And most certainly does not vote.
About half the country’s eligible voters don’t vote — well more than that in most midterms. Yet in a situation such as Tuesday’s election, with the nation divided into relatively equal-size groups of locked-in partisans and control of Congress and some state capitals depending on closely contested races, nonvoters in their own way hold great power. In dozens of battlegrounds, especially in politically essential suburban House districts, it’s the habitual nonvoters who control the margin.
For Democrats to take control of either chamber of Congress, they must activate masses of voters — particularly young people and minorities — who in the past have not bothered to show up. Many in the party place blame for the Trump presidency on a failure two years ago by Hillary Clinton to turn out the Democratic base in key states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
And since Republicans, too, need support from people who usually don’t vote — or vote only in presidential years — to maintain their majorities, both parties are spending millions to try to move the uninvolved into the fray, if only just this once.
“There’s been a sea change in the attention paid to nonvoters, with a very significant part of campaign budgets now going to getting low-propensity voters to vote,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. “There’s no question there will be a dramatic increase in turnout this year, but nobody knows who those new and extra voters will be.”
Even if candidates and their consultants view them as an elusive but invaluable bunch, many nonvoters see themselves as powerless pawns, scraping together lives that politicians make only more difficult.
Here in Gilmer County — where only 36 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2016, the lowest turnout of any county in West Virginia, which in turn had the second-lowest turnout of any state, behind Hawaii — the traditional connection between low-income, low-information populations and not voting is palpable.
When Greenleaf wants to catch up on the news, she drops by the Go Mart convenience shop on Main Street, or the Cornerstone Cafe down the block, to take in the chatter. “They know what’s going on,” she said. “I don’t need to read nothing.”
Gilmer County GOP Chairman Willard Wright attributes his county’s low turnouts to widespread cynicism about politics, fed by a chronic lack of competitive races. “They aren’t interested enough to educate themselves a lot of times,” he said.
“For many years, we were such a minority as a party — it was three-to-one Democrats around here — that we didn’t even have candidates for many races,” he said. “A lot of people feel it’s going to be a landslide, so why bother voting?”
Nationwide, according to a Census Bureau study in 2016, the top reasons nonvoters give for staying away from the polls are not liking their choices (25 percent), not being interested (15 percent), being too busy to vote (14 percent) and being held back by illness or disability (12 percent).
In an isolated, rural place such as Glenville, 20 minutes from the nearest interstate highway, the golden morning light and splotches of fall color on the dramatic hillsides can mask a lot of loneliness and despair. Eight of 23 storefronts on four blocks of Main Street are vacant, the laundromat is shuttered and available for $17,000, and the combination of an aging population and a devastating opioid epidemic has left many people believing that voting just isn’t worth the effort.
“Some people don’t come out more than once or twice a year,” said David Corcoran, publisher of the local newspapers, the Glenville Democrat and Pathfinder. “They’re back in the hills and hollers, and they don’t think anything affects them. And if you or someone in your family is on opiates, that takes over your life. Voting is kind of superfluous to you.”
But nonvoters are by no means limited to remote places. In the last midterms, in 2014, only 36 percent of eligible blacks, 21 percent of Hispanics and 16 percent of people under age 30 turned out to vote, according to the U.S. Elections Project.
In election after election, big money and all manner of tactics aimed at getting out the youth and Hispanic votes have ended with little change in low turnout numbers. This year, Democratic challengers such as Rep. Beto O’Rourke, running against Sen. Ted Cruz (R) in Texas, and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams can win only if they re-create the Obama coalition, including unusually high turnouts among young people and minorities.
Record levels of early voting have offered signs in some places that campaigns are reaching new voters — but how many traditional nonvoters will show up Tuesday remains unclear. Across the country, many interviewed for this report remained committed to avoiding the ballot box.
Politics is simply “something we don’t have control of,” said Nyia Ford, a sales clerk at a Gap store in the Bronx, the New York City borough that has one of the lowest turnout rates in the state. “When I say ‘we,’ I mean black people. Honestly, politics was made for the white men, for them to benefit. It’s always been like that since America was founded.”
Ford, who is black, 19 and a part-time student at Purchase, in the State University of New York system, cited two reasons for not voting: She’s busy and she doesn’t see a path out of the deepening divide between the races.
“I feel like Trump just started a whole new revolution,” she said, “a bad one. I feel like ever since he was put in office, the whole black-and-white thing just got completely out of hand.”
A similar disillusionment keeps Edwin Martinez away from the polls. He was 18 in 2008, when he cast his first vote for Barack Obama. That year, 64 percent of citizens under age 30 voted — a number that collapsed to 38 percent in 2012.
Obama “made history, and I feel like I made history because I voted for him,” said Martinez, a hardware-store employee in the Bronx who chose Obama again in 2012 but has not voted since and plans to stay home Tuesday. A father of three and son of Dominican immigrants, he is turned off by the hyper-partisanship and the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“I’m not inspired,” Martinez said, laughing.
The reason some people don’t vote is that they can’t — they’re felons or legal immigrants who are not yet citizens. Others are disaffected, doubtful that voting has meaning. Or they’re uncertain whether they should trust their own judgment. Or they’re just plain overwhelmed.
On downtown Denver’s 16th Street Mall, as red and brown leaves drifted off trees in a chilly breeze, Phillip Padilla — wearing rhinestone stud earrings, a chunky gold necklace and a baseball cap sporting an oversize cannabis leaf — searched for a marijuana dispensary as he jiggled his sleepy 6-month-old daughter, Alexia, in a front pack.
“I don’t think my word has any say,” he said, explaining why he is not voting. “So many other people vote. What’s one less mean?”
Padilla, who is 21 and unemployed, having recently left a job at Walmart, didn’t cast a ballot in 2016, either — “too much drama between Trump and Hillary.” His financial situation is precarious, but he sees no reason to believe that choosing the right candidate would help stabilize his life.
The only way he would vote, Padilla said, is “if I got $100 for doing it.”
For Porsha Edmond, a 30-year-old medical assistant in Burnsville, Minn., a suburb south of the Twin Cities, politics is one big turnoff. The ads on TV are incessant and relentlessly negative. “A healthy debate? That’s fine,” she said. “But when it comes to the bashing . . . 6 o’clock in the morning, going to work, I really don’t want to start my day off like that.”
“I definitely believe in the vote, as far as making a change. I really do,” she said. “But I also am a person who is on the fence. . . . Does my vote really make a difference?”
She has voted before, for Obama and then Clinton in 2016. “But I don’t think my vote mattered,” she said.
Now, watching Trump, she’s again on the fence. “A lot of people don’t like him, but for me personally, I’m someone who kind of admires the entrepreneur side,” she said. “I don’t like . . . how belligerent he is, how overall uneducated he comes off, but at the end of the day, this is a very rich man who made some very great decisions.”
Edmond’s bottom line — her life hasn’t gotten better or worse since Trump took office: “I’m not really affected.”
Aaron Abramson, the owner of a DJ company in Duluth, wrote off voting years ago, after he cast his ballot for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president in 2008.
He’s moved around a bit, and re-registering to vote was “a pain.” Then there are the TV ads, which he deems “ridiculous.” Abramson, 36, calls himself a moderate Republican, but “I really don’t think it matters who is the president. People said the world was going to end when Obama was president — it hasn’t ended. People said the world would end when Bush was president — it didn’t end. People said the world would end with Trump — it isn’t ending.”
Many nonvoters didn’t start out disaffected. Life made them that way. Olen Anderson, 67, once trusted the government and felt duty-bound to his country. From 1966 to 1969, he served in Vietnam as an Army medic.
But Anderson, who is retired and lives in Upstate New York near the Vermont line, has come to mistrust politicians, no matter their party. He has no interest in voting. The country is “headed downhill,” he said, and there’s nothing he can do about it.
He watched as his sister was forced to sell the family home because she couldn’t afford the property taxes. He’s pressed for years to get dentures but said his veterans health insurance won’t cover the cost.
“I fought overseas. Come here, try to get false teeth, can’t,” he said. “You fight for your country, you come home, and they say the hell with you.”
And he was saddened to see local officials shut down children’s swimming pools in a budget-cutting move.
“They just closed them down and said, ‘The hell with the children,’ ” Anderson said. “So I just don’t believe in the government no more.”
Phillips reported from New York. Torey Van Oot in Minneapolis, Jennifer Oldham in Denver, and Scott Clement and Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.