The people who could determine the midterm results by...staying home

Join me for a look at the American non-voter

Hi there, and welcome to this week’s edition of OverHere.

Over the past month my parents came to visit us over here in the US. It was wonderful to see them, and it was also fascinating to spend some time seeing the country through their eyes. And times certainly were interesting -- we had the Trump-Putin summit for starters, as well as indictments issued against Russian agents, not to mention the general circus that is politics and coverage of politics these days. They found these things almost impossible to comprehend -- let alone to comprehend that there is a chunk of this country that sees these matters in a different light. Mum summed up her reaction to me in the following terms:

“What the ... .”

Living here, it is sometimes a little too easy to forget just how strange the current times look to non-Americans (though of course they look strange to many Americans as well). It is a good reminder that things are not exactly normal. That is of course a large part of the reason I started this newsletter: to translate culturally some of the more bewildering aspects of this American moment.

And so, with that, here is this week’s edition of OverHere.

Headlines Worth Paying Attention To

  • Ohio special election gives Dems hope for midterms. As at the time of writing, the special election in districts around Ohio’s capital, Columbus, was still too close to call. The race has drawn attention as a potential indicator of a surge for the Democrats leading up to the midterms, because ordinarily it should not have been a close race. Republicans have held the seat since the 1980s, and President Trump won it by 11 percentage points in 2016. The counties themselves are overwhelmingly white, though they are demographically diverse in other ways, capturing both the the kinds of rural voters who headed for Trump in 2016, as well as highly educated voters (two in five residents have college degrees). The results do show a surge in the percentage of Democratic votes in counties almost across the board — and particularly in areas where voters are more affluent and educated — though areas outside of the city and suburbs close to the city still went pretty comfortably Republican.

  • “Stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now”. It almost feels like old news now, but in a series of tweets, Trump called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now”, in reference to the Mueller investigation. Was it venting by a President increasingly frustrated with an investigation that he considers illegitimate? A direct order to interfere with an ongoing investigation? Or an intentional distraction from other news? In any case, it seems to have gone further than he has gone publicly before.

  • Paul Manafort on trial. The trial of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, on financial fraud and tax evasion charges connected with his work as a political consultant in Ukraine began. The case is not about the Russia investigation per se, but it has given rise to speculation about his connections with Russia, as well as whether a threat of conviction could lead Manafort to cooperate with the Mueller investigation.

  • 3D-printed guns. A plan by Texan gun rights activist, Cody Wilson, to post blueprints online for how to make 3D guns was temporarily blocked by a judge in Seattle. But in a country where guns can already legally be made at home, does this order just delay the inevitable? Don’t forget that the blueprints had already been released online, limiting the effectiveness of the injunction. You might not need convincing, but this Vox explainer on experts’ specific concerns around the ability to 3D-print guns was interesting.

Just who won’t vote in these midterm elections?

It might surprise you to know that a large majority of Americans who are eligible to vote in these midterm elections will likely not cast their vote to elect federal members of Congress (House and Senate). And the demographics speak pretty clearly: the young, those in minority racial and ethnic groups, the less affluent and the less educated are all less likely to vote.

Now, I am fairly used to taking voting for granted in Australia. Regardless of how we feel about the candidates, the issues, or the act of voting itself, at least every three years we know we have to take some time on a Saturday to head to our local polling booth. Once there, we wrestle with a humourously large ballot paper, and reward ourselves with a sausage sizzle afterwards, to mark another round of compulsory civic duty performed.

And I guess I grew up assuming that voting took place more or less like this in democracies around the world. (Perhaps I just wasn’t paying much attention in Australian civics classes, because I just recently learned that only about a dozen countries have some form of enforced compulsory voting.)

But in America the system and traditions of voting are very different.

Voting here is of course not compulsory. And for a country that takes pride in being seen as a beacon of democracy, the US actually has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the developed world (that is, behind most countries in the OECD).

In US general elections -- where Americans elect their President (among other things) -- around 60 per cent of people who are eligible to vote actually turn out to vote. And in midterms -- where members of Congress are elected (among a handful of other things) -- turnout hovers around 40 per cent of people eligible.

Think about that: just over a third of Americans who are eligible end up making the trip to the ballot box to elect their members of Congress.

In contrast, although Australian voter turnout at the last election was apparently the lowest it has been since compulsory voting was introduced, we still saw participation by over 86 per cent of people eligible to vote (according to estimates by the Australian Electoral Commission).

In the US a lot of time is spent focusing on those who are likely to vote, and A LOT of money and effort is spent getting likely voters out to vote. An estimated $6.4 billion (yep, with a ‘b’) was spent by candidates, political parties and interest groups trying to influence the 2016 federal election, according to the Open Secrets project.

But there tends to be less focus on the flip side of that coin: those who are likely not to vote in these midterm elections.

So who are these non-voters? It is of course impossible to know in advance who will stay home on the day, but if the last midterm elections are a reliable guide, then according to data collected by the Pew Research Center non-voters:

  • Tend younger.

  • Are more likely to belong to minority racial and ethnic groups.

  • Are less affluent (fully 45% of non-voters surveyed said they have had trouble paying bills in the past year, compared with 30% of likely voters).

  • Are less educated.

  • Tend not to identify so strongly with a political party, as you might expect. But when taking into account political leanings, they do tend to lean Democratic in higher numbers.

And why don’t they vote?

Suffolk University, MA, and USA Today conducted a poll of likely non-voters earlier this year, and they found that:

  • They are not necessarily apathetic about the future of the country. More than half of respondents said they felt the country was on the wrong track, and more than half rated Trump unfavourably. BUT 83% of those polled still said they are “not very likely” or “not at all likely” to vote in the midterms.

  • But most are disillusioned with politics and feel like their vote will not make a difference. Nearly 63% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “I don’t pay much attention to politics because nothing ever gets done – it’s a bunch of empty promises.” And 68% agreed or strongly agreed with this sentiment: “I don’t pay much attention to politics because it is so corrupt.”

  • Most are actually somewhat engaged with politics and current affairs. 39% percent of respondents said they follow politics most of the time, while 25% said they follow what’s going on in government and public affairs some of the time. The rest said they follow politics only now and then (17%) or hardly at all (17%).

  • But there is the fact that voting is inconvenient. More than 10% said they were not registered because it was “difficult to vote” or they were “too busy/no time/out of town."

Certainly some aspects of the process makes turning out to vote here a little more difficult:

  • Voting is on a Tuesday, for one thing. So if your work schedule makes it difficult to join what could be a long line, voting is not such an easy proposition.

  • It is really up to each person to actively take steps to ensure they are registered to vote. A survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2016 found that over 60 per cent of US adult citizens had never been asked to register to vote (whether by government agencies, political groups or even by friends and family).

This is not to mention more active efforts to suppress votes (such as aggressive measures in some states, like Ohio, to deregister voters, and gerrymandering districts to achieve political outcomes).

I will be watching the turnout rates closely in these upcoming midterms. I polled a few of my American friends (granted, as far from scientific a process as you could get), and was heartened to learn that many of them have voted in midterms since they turned 18. As for the others, the response I got was:

“Now we do!”

Some progressives at least are hoping to mobilise the non-voting population heading into the midterms, particularly people of colour.

“Our swing voter is not red to blue,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Bronx Democrat who upset Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in a June primary, told an audience of progressive activists on Saturday. “It’s nonvoter to voter.”

This seems like a pretty big ask.

However, as far as I can tell no one has yet investigated what the sausage sizzle (hot dog?) factor might do to the American national voter turnout rate. Sure, you might get a sticker for turning up to vote. But really … it’s no snag. Just some food for thought. Maybe there is hope after all.

The sticker you might get for voting. Not exciting like a sausage sizzle.

More exciting than a sticker. #democracysausage

Weekend Bites

>>How well do you know Trump voters?

If you assume that the typical Trump voter is a white working-class man, then you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. After all, this kind of voter helped him to win key states in the last election, like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But you would be missing the broader spectrum of people who voted for him. A majority of Trump voters were women, non-white or college graduates (or a combination of these things).

A more nuanced picture of Trump voters, and how they feel about him, is emerging from ongoing research by the Pew Research Center. And the research suggests that while white working-class supporters remain loyal, he is losing some ground within this stereotype-defying majority — particularly among college-educated women — and this could have an impact in the upcoming midterms.

Take The New York Times’ test, based on this data, to see how your assumptions about Trump voters stack up.

>>Laughter is a dangerous portal for humanity

“[L]aughter is the virus that infects you with humanity. And if you sit with somebody and laugh — not at them, but laugh with them wholeheartedly, how in the world can you get up from that table and say, “Pssh, those people.” You can’t. And if you’ve laughed with them, you’re going to cry with them too. That laughter is a very dangerous portal for humanity.”

--Luis Alberto Urrea, a Mexican-American writer, whose book House of Broken Angels is wonderful (I am only halfway through reading it but feel comfortable making this recommendation). This quote is taken from his interview with Krista Tippett in the podcast On Being. Which I also cannot say enough good things about. It is food for the soul.

I am always on the lookout for people who are trying to reach across differences and divides, and I love this idea of laughter as a connecting, humanising force in times where it feels like a mammoth task to understand people on the other side of politics.

>>You can’t make this stuff up

And now I am excited to bring you the most excellent midterm story I have seen yet.

A Republican candidate in a Virginia congressional race has been accused of being more into Bigfoot erotica than your average person. His Democratic rival, Leslie Cockburn, tweeted this picture she found on his Instagram profile:

Leslie Cockburn@LeslieCockburn

My opponent Denver Riggleman, running mate of Corey Stewart, was caught on camera campaigning with a white supremacist. Now he has been exposed as a devotee of Bigfoot erotica. This is not what we need on Capitol Hill. pic.twitter.com/0eBvxFd6sG

July 29, 2018
(And, due to a quirk of this publishing platform, here is the pic that goes with the tweet:)

Here are other parts of the story that I shall try to relay as factually as I can:

  • The candidate’s name is Denver Riggleman.

  • He is writing a book called “Mating Habits of Bigfoot and Why Women Want Him”.

  • (Bigfoot erotica is apparently a robust genre of erotica with a not insignificant audience, as reported by Buzzfeed.)

  • Oh, and just to be serious for a moment, he is also alleged to have campaigned with white supremacists.

He claims the book is not pornographic in content, and has also denied campaigning with white supremacists.

So, yes, let’s giggle at the Riggle, because we all need a laugh. And then let’s remember that down is up, and this is probably not going to be the most frighteningly ridiculous news story of this political season.

And, with that, I’m done for this week.

Over and out,
Alex Eggerking

Oh wait, some other stuff

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A note on spelling. I have thought long and hard about matters of spelling since setting out to write this newsletter. I have decided that since the majority of the audience will likely be Australian or have some connection to Australia, Australian spelling will win the day. Please forgive the occasional slip up where I let a stray Americanisation remain. It took me nearly two years to start using ‘z’s as a matter of course (and call them ‘zee’s), and now this practice is lodged in my brain. It is also nearly impossible to get through a business day here without referring to people as ‘folks’, so please grant me that indulgence from time to time, too. Grammar, well, that’s a different matter, and all grammatical mistakes are my own. Feel free to point them out if that’s the sort of thing that makes you happy.


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