Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
“The United States of Apathy” showcases the dramatic effect of low voter turnout in U.S. elections.
The results of the 2018 midterm elections—and of Democrats’ efforts to retake the U.S. House of Representatives and stem Republican gains in the Senate—will all depend on turnout. Historically speaking, though, voting in midterm elections isn’t something that a majority of Americans do. In 2014, just a little more than one third of eligible voters cast ballots, the lowest share since 1942, according to the United States Elections Project.
Even in the last presidential election, just 56 percent of could-be voters showed up to the polls. In fact, in hundreds of counties around the U.S., the number of eligible individuals who did not vote far outweighed the number of ballots actually cast for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016. If those millions of no-shows had picked “nobody” on the ballot—the effective choice of their abstention—“nobody” would have won in a landslide.
That is the message of a striking map created by amateur cartographer Philip Kearney in April 2018, which was expanded upon by Jim Herries, an Esri cartographer, last week. Drawing on Census Bureau data and election results, “United States of Apathy” compares those no-show votes to the actual turnout for both presidential candidates in the 2016 election, and adds up the electoral votes that would have been produced. “Nobody” wins 445 electoral votes, a victory of several factors over Trump’s 21 and Clinton’s 72. (Again, that’s if they were actually running against a no-show candidate. In reality, Trump won the electoral college with 304 votes while Clinton lost it with 227, despite winning the popular vote.) In the updated version, Herries has added a series of interactive maps that detail where the pluralities of “apathetic” voters played to the advantage of both candidates, and by what margin, across the 50 states. Dive in here.
While surveys of no-show voters in 2016 indicate a lack of interest in the candidates or issues at hand, it may not be fair to pin the cause of America’s low turnout rates entirely to apathy. Some voters are disillusioned with what they see as the inefficacy of the political system; others may live far from polling places and lack transportation access; still more may prefer to prioritize their jobs or families. And voter suppression efforts—be they photo ID requirements, late registration penalties, last-minute poll closures or schedule changes, or voter roll purges—keep an untold number of Americans away from the ballots. So do problems that arise when people do show up to vote, including long lines and malfunctioning machines.
It’s also well established that certain demographics are far less likely to vote than others, and they track closely with class status. Jonathan Nagler, the director of New York University’s Politics Data Center, told the New York Times last month that more than 80 percent of college-educated Americans turn out to vote, compared with about 40 percent of Americans who do not hold high school degrees.
“There is a class skew that is fundamental and very worrying,” Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard historian and social policy expert, said in the same article. “Parts of society remain tuned out and don’t feel like active citizens. There is this sense of disengagement and powerlessness.”
In this year’s election, early signs do point to a surge in voter turnout for both parties. Democrats appear to have a narrow lead. Which party will ultimately benefit, though, will be an open question until Tuesday night—at least.