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Isolation and frustration are keeping some voters from election excitement

To some American voters, the 2020 presidential race is one of the most consequential of their lifetimes.

Several people told the PBS NewsHour that they would “crawl over broken glass” or “walk over hot coals” in order to vote the current president out of office next year. And since early March, the Trump administration’s slow response to contain the spread of COVID-19 seems to have solidified that sentiment, particularly among Democrats.

But not all Americans feel such an urgency. The choice of the two candidates — both white male septuagenarians — has some young voters feeling less than enthused, particularly those who were hoping to see a candidate with more dramatic plans for systemic change. The coronavirus pandemic has left some Americans feeling more isolated than ever, with little inclination to participate in the political process, while fearing the risks of visiting a crowded polling place. And some voters who spoke with the PBS NewsHour expressed frustration at the electoral college and a feeling that their vote doesn’t count after two elections in 20 years — President Donald Trump’s win in 2016 and George W. Bush in 2000 — in which a candidate took office without winning the popular vote.

In a NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll from early August, just 5 percent of U.S. adults surveyed said they didn’t plan to vote, compared to 93 percent who said they were likely to vote by mail or in person. But the percentage was higher among some demographics, including people aged 18 to 29 (8 percent), those whose household incomes are less than $50,000 (8 percent) and Latino Americans (14 percent). Voters under 30 in the U.S. have long been less likely to vote than other age groups, and participation typically increases with family income. While the share of eligible Hispanic voters in the U.S. has steadily increased in recent years, this has not necessarily translated to higher turnout rates.

Studies show that voter turnout among certain demographics can make or break a candidates’ chances of winning. More than 41 percent of eligible Americans did not vote in the 2016 presidential election, according to a Knight Foundation analysis which found that Hillary Clinton’s failure to turn out with as high a margin of Black and millennial voters as her Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, was part of what cost her the election. That history is top-of-mind for progressive organizations hoping to elect Joe Biden this year. And despite criticism that the Democratic National Convention lacked Latino voices, both the Biden and Trump campaigns are seeking inroads with Latino voters in swing states such as Arizona.

The Democratic runner-up, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt,. invested heavily in Latino outreach during the primaries, and it paid off — he won the most votes from this demographic in the California and Texas primaries, and earned the support of more than 1,000 delegates overall before dropping out of the race. Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., are now hoping to court voters who were Sanders supporters and are seeking bold change on U.S. policies such as health care and climate change. Sanders told the PBS NewsHour on Aug. 20 that he had consulted with Biden by pursuing six different task forces on these issues, and suggested these efforts would make him “the most progressive president since FDR.”

Meanwhile, third party candidates Jo Jorgensen, a Libertarian, and Howie Hawkins, from the Green Party, had slim margins of support in a CNBC/Change Research poll released in mid-July.

The NewsHour spoke with Americans about their anxieties and apprehensions ahead of the 2020 election, as well as some of the organizations working to persuade voters to turn out.

The young and minority voters who hesitate on Biden

The pandemic has drastically changed the way campaigns reach out to voters, and made it harder to connect with those groups that have lower turnout rates in most elections to begin with, particularly young people.

“Two old white guys running for president in 2020 is certainly not the dream most of us had for this year,” said Sarah Audelo of the Alliance for Youth Action, a progressive organization that works to register and educate young voters. Recent polling by the organization found that the primary reasons young people might not turn out to vote include feeling like their vote doesn’t count and not knowing enough about the candidates.

Although most Gen Z and Millennial voters said in a earlier this month that they would vote for Biden over Trump if the election were held today, young voters generally have a less favorable impression of the former vice president than other generations: Just 34 percent of voters age 18 to 29 said they had a favorable impression of Biden, compared to 48 percent of voters age 45 to 59.

Tiffany Heeg, 33, of Irving, Texas, said the advanced ages of both Biden and Trump concerned her. If elected, Biden, who is 77 years old, would be the oldest living president in history. And Heeg believes that neither president would craft policy with the benefit of younger Americans in mind. “They’re not going to be around that much longer…the policies that they enact, they’re not going to be around to see them through,” Heeg said.

Heeg said if she does vote, she’ll either write in a candidate or choose Biden, however reluctantly. Whatever apathy some voters feel about Biden, Trump is seen as an especially divisive candidate among left-leaning and moderate Americans. In the most recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, half of Americans who intend to vote for Biden said they would do so because they are against Trump, rather than actively support his opponent.

Still, for some young, minority or female voters who oppose Trump, the Biden choice has been hard to stomach.

“My issue with Biden is that he talks about Black voters in a monolithic way,” said Ernest Owens, a writer-at-large with Philadelphia magazine who voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vt.-I, in the Pennsylvania primary. In a column for the magazine, he called Biden a “lesser racist” compared against Trump, and criticized his policies and actions toward the Black community, including co-authoring the 1994 crime bill, which contributed to higher levels of incarceration, and more recently, commenting to radio host Charlamagne tha God in May that if someone doesn’t vote for him, “you ain’t Black.”

Owen said the former vice president has failed to consider the interests of a more intersectional electorate when developing his 2020 platform: “He’s not talking about LGBTQ black voters….I don’t think Biden sees me when he thinks of a Black voter. And I think that that’s what has been disappointing.”

Aidan Schneider, 35, of Bowie, Maryland, said she similarly sees a Biden-Trump race as a “lesser-of-two-evils” choice, particularly because she is not happy with either candidates’ history regarding women. At least 16 women have accused Trump of sexual assault, including an allegation of rape. Trump has said the stories are false. When a former Biden staffer, Tara Reade, alleged she had been sexually assaulted by the Democratic candidate, Biden categorically denied that the incident had happened, and many former staffers could not corroborate her claim. But the former vice president has apologized for making women feel uncomfortable in the past.

Trump says “he wants to ‘grab women by the pussy,’…but also, Biden hugs people without regard for whether or not they are interested in a hug,” Schneider said. She said that Biden’s decision to choose a female vice presidential candidate in Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., was promising, but she still would have rather seen a woman like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in Biden’s place, leading the ticket.

Susan J. Carroll, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, said many of her college-age students were turned off by reports that Biden made women feel uncomfortable. “As someone who teaches college-age students, it actually struck a strong cord there….The women students were just pretty unforgiving.”

Carroll said that Biden’s choice of Harris as his running mate may have boosted his appeal among female voters. “I think the symbolism will create more activism and energy around the ticket, and in the Black community more generally,” Carroll said. She did add, however, that Harris may still struggle to appeal to younger progressive voters: “I think they view her….as too centrist, they’re worried about her record as a prosecutor; she’s not progressive enough to them.”

Nineteen-year-old Jason Wright, of Mount Juliet, Tennessee, said that many of his peers had a “Bernie or Bust” mentality, and felt that Biden’s policies were not far left enough on issues such as health care and the economy. And while Wright favors “Medicare for All” — a plan championed by Sanders — he said he would still vote for Biden in the upcoming election. “I have seen the damage President Trump has done to this country and I feel like Joe Biden is extremely qualified,” Wright said.

For other voters, Biden seems to be the safe bet simply because he isn’t Trump. Dan Eckman, a 41-year-old Republican from Brooklyn, said he lost faith in his party well before Trump entered office, around the time that the tea party movement started ousting moderate Republicans from seats they had held their entire careers. While Eckman remains a Republican, he is staunchly anti-Trump and believes Biden would be a “dramatic improvement from what we have now.”

“The thing that I like most about him as a candidate is I think he’ll be hugely ineffectual for four years,” Eckman said of Biden. “So he’ll de-Trumpify the White House without doing any of the things that Sanders or Warren would have done.”

Why fear and isolation may keep some from the polls

Political activists and get-out-the-vote organizations say they face an unprecedented challenge in convincing Americans to vote this election year. Many voters — especially the elderly and immunocompromised — are concerned about leaving their houses to vote in buildings where the virus may easily spread. Many states have expanded mail-in voting, but a number of states still require voters to provide an excuse beyond the coronavirus to send in their ballots. Without offering evidence, Trump has repeatedly tried to discredit mail-in voting as an avenue to widespread voting fraud, and recent changes at the U.S. Postal Service have drawn fears that ballots sent by mail might not be delivered in time, casting doubt on the viability of that option.

Not to mention that in a few short months, the economy has plummeted to record lows, millions of Americans lost jobs and health care and at least 170,000 people have lost their lives as a result of COVID-19. So getting to the polls on Election Day might not be a number one concern.

“We had to kind of stop all of our in-person efforts and transition into phone banking and texting and go for the virtual and remote,” said Andrea Mercado of the New Florida Majority, which works to mobilize communities to vote in Florida. “We’re really concerned that what people who have lost their jobs, or when they have a family member in the ICU, you know, voting might not be top of mind for them.”

“I think people are distracted during the pandemic,” said Deborah Potter, a retired 67-year-old scientist living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Although the election is important to them, there’s so much else going on dealing with life in this new situation that we’re not accustomed to on a day-to-day basis.”

Potter, who is active with the Democratic Party of New Mexico, said she and fellow party members have moved their political events online since the coronavirus began, holding events on Zoom and joining virtual phone banks organized by candidates themselves.

When high school senior Justin Wright began taking classes from home due to the pandemic, his plans to organize young people as vice president of the Young Democrats chapter of his school were thwarted. Rather than inviting state Congressional members to events at the high school, he said most of their efforts to educate his peers about the election have moved online.

“Like everything about this pandemic, people have to be resourceful,” said Bob Brandon, CEO of the Fair Elections Center, which works to move barriers to registration and voting in the U.S., particularly for disenfranchised communities. “The in-person drives were important and they dried up. The lack of access to DMV [offices] is another problem,” he said, citing usual voter registration strategies that are no longer widely available.

The pandemic seems to have a significant impact on voter registration this year compared to previous years. The number of voters registered in March and April of this year was 3.12 million, a 32-percent drop compared with the 4.7 million that registered during the same months in 2020. However, a Democratic political firm released an analysis this month that found that registrations rebounded in June amid protests for racial justice in reaction to a number of killings of Black Americans by police officers.

Mercado of the New Florida Majority said “the stakes couldn’t be clearer” this election year. In Florida, high rates of unemployment and COVID-19 cases have hit minority communities — particularly Latinos — hard. “If anything, this pandemic has really made it clear to folks why who represents you at your county commission or in Washington, D.C., really makes a difference,” Mercado said.

Despite the high stakes of the election, the Democratic National Convention only featured three Latino speakers, and prominent leaders in the community criticized their failure to better connect with this electorate.

“Rather than growing the electorate, which is how Democrats will win in November and beyond, it seems as though they are reaching out to Republican voters,” Cristina Jiménez Moreta, an immigrant activist and co-founder of United We Dream Action, wrote in a New York Times Op-ed following the election. “This sends a terrible message to the Latino voters they need to win in November.” Moreta said. She cited a recent poll by Somos/Unidos which found that 64 percent of Latinos had not been contacted by any Democratic, Republican or non-partisan civic groups about voting this year, suggested a disconnect that could affect turnout for both parties this year.

Despite featuring several prominent Black speakers, including Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., as well as former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the Republican National Convention was still largely white. It was later reported that several people of color who were featured in RNC videos — including immigrants participating in a naturalization ceremony — were not told they would be used in the Republican convention coverage ahead of time.

When the electoral college makes you feel like you don’t count

Some voters told the PBS NewsHour that they felt that their vote would not make a difference after witnessing Hillary Clinton lose the 2016 election despite having won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million.

Shawn Arnold, a 35-year-old IT professional living in San Francisco, is one such voter. Arnold said he believes this is a consequential election year, particularly because of the pandemic. Still, Arnold doesn’t plan to vote in November. He figures that California, a reliable blue state, will fall to Biden anyway, and doesn’t see how his vote would make a difference, since the nationwide total of votes doesn’t crown the winner.

Arnold felt this way even before 2016, but said that Trump’s win further solidified his distrust in the American electoral process. “With the electoral college there’s a feeling of disillusionment,” Arnold said. He said that after Clinton’s loss, there was “a feeling of helplessness, like our vote doesn’t matter.”

Republican Dan Eckman said he lost faith in his vote counting shortly after he became of voting age. “New York is not in play,” Eckman, who grew up in Brooklyn, said. “This is the deep blue sea.” Although Eckman always pays careful attention to local elections, he has written in a candidate for president since 2004, and plans to do the same this year. He plans to cast his vote for former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who ran a primary campaign to challenge the incumbent president.

As of March 2019, half of U.S. voters said they thought the national popular vote should be used to determine presidential election outcomes, compared to 34 percent who said they should be based on the electoral college, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll. And since the 2016 election, legislative efforts to abolish the electoral college have gained more traction than in previous years: 15 states and the District of Columbia have signed onto the National Popular Vote initiative, an interstate compact that seeks to abolish the Electoral College without amending the Constitution. Some of the more recent signatories, such as Colorado and Nevada, are not reliably Democratic states, as had been the case with most states that signed on in the past.

“Why is an urban vote worth less than a rural vote?” Ron Davis, 74, of Broadview Heights, Ohio, said to NewsHour, noting that he would support abolishing the electoral college in favor of the popular vote.

Aidan Schneider said that the virus and renewed calls for racial justice had made the need to vote “more explicitly visible,” but that “the Electoral College feels rigged.”

Add those feelings to a prediction by experts that it could take days, or even weeks, to determine a winner — given the unusually high number of mail-in ballots expected to be sent in this year — and no matter the results, Americans may experience more anxiety about the integrity of the electoral system come November.