The Looming Specter of the Dormant Voter

The myth of red states and blue states gets on my nerves. And I live in one of the reddest states, Alabama, where the shift away from the Solid South that began with Nixon in the late ’60s was then built into bedrock by Reagan in the ’80s. Though there were two to three decades of two-party politicking in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, the Red Wave of 2010 moved the state Democratic Party from 136 years of legislative control to losing every statewide office. Alabama didn’t just get a super-majority, we got a super-duper-majority, and by 2016, significant portions of the Alabama ballot were occupied by Republicans running unopposed

But that changed a bit by 2017, when we had a special election to fill the vacated US Senate of ever-Trumper Jeff Sessions, and the narrow victory went to Democrat Doug Jones, an attorney from Birmingham. After the state’s speaker of the house was indicted on ethics charges in 2014 and both the governor and the chief justice left office amid scandals in early 2017, there was a visible chink in the red armor. Amid the strife, an uneasy coalition eked out a Jones victory by a margin of 50% to 48% over his Republican opponent. But national media always viewed Jones’ position as tenuous and were talking about his defeat in 2020 almost immediately after he got elected. Though I’m normally a listener and a supporter of public radio, even NPR’s Ari Shapiro took a little time in mid-November 2020 to rub it in about his predicted loss. This question started off the interview:

SHAPIRO: You know, when you were elected in 2017, about 674,000 people voted for you. And this year, about 914,00 people voted for you, many more. And yet you lost in a landslide. So how do you interpret that?

And this one came nearer the end:

SHAPIRO: I don’t want this to sound rude, but there are going to be people listening to you thinking to themselves, he lost by 20 points, why should we give any weight to what he has to say?

Maybe because he’s a capable attorney with two years of experience as a US senator . . . 

The reason that the red-state/blue-state narrative gets on my nerves is: it insinuates that minority parties have “lost” in the way that a sports team loses a game, which leads some potential voters to buy into a narrative of certain and perpetual defeat. Why waste the time, energy, and gas, when it won’t matter if I go and vote? My “team” will lose anyway. 

To illustrate the either-or narrative’s flaws, consider the presidential election of 2020. Donald Trump won Alabama with 62.2% of the vote, defeating Joe Biden who garnered 36.7% and Libertarian Jo Jorgenson with a scant 1.1%. Pundits would say, Trump’s 25-point victory painted the state red again! Looking at it in a different way, vote totals for the two men – Trump’s 1.44 million and Biden’s nearly 850,000 – add up to 2.3 million votes. Alabama has 4.9 million people living here, and according to the census, 22% are under age 18, so that means that 3.82 million are adults. Doing some simple math, about 1.5 million adults – some registered, some not – didn’t vote. That number exceeds (slightly) the winner’s total. Donald Trump was allotted 100% of the electoral-college votes from Alabama, making it a red state, with the votes of about 38% of the state’s adults, over Biden’s 23%, but still neck-and-neck with the 38–39% who cast no ballot. That’s a lot of leeway, especially since the last five presidential elections have been close. In terms of coalitions of voters, red is for Republican and blue is for Democrat, but what color would we use for the mixture of frustrated refusal to participate, non-committal apathy, forgetfulness, and disenfranchisement? Light gray, maybe, or beige.

Despite the myth of “important” elections, which are now hyped like entertainment events, what matters about politics is the period between elections, when those selected for office govern in a system that Abraham Lincoln described as “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The day after an election, it isn’t over. It’s just getting started. If our favorite sports team loses on the court or the field, it really is over, but we can’t start going to their practices to question their coaches— but in politics, we can. And, dare I say, we should. The narrative that emphasizes a single day’s victory-or-defeat would be better replaced by a belief in political participation that goes beyond one day every other year.

My question, as an editor of this project, is: what about that dormant 38%? Certainly, many of those Alabamians would vote with the current majority, supporting Republican candidates for statewide and national offices. But how many of them? And perhaps even more importantly, why did nearly two out of five adults not vote? I’ll leave those questions there and extend this invitation not to Alabamians alone but to all Southerners who’d like to write personal essays to share their answers to those questions, or others like them. The deadline for the first reading period is coming in a few days, but there’s plenty of time to make the next deadline on February 15.

Meanwhile, if you’re a proud independent like me, take a look at the Purple States of America website, to see what shades your state has been over the last forty years. 

Editor’s note: In addition to my simple math about Alabama’s vote totals versus its population, I checked my figures against published voter-turnout numbers (61.8%) to ensure that they matched up.

Further reading: A week after this post was published, NPR ran a story on December 15 titled “Poll: Despite Record Turnout, 80 Million Americans Didn’t Vote. Here’s Why.” The story addresses some of the issues raised here.

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