Millions of Pennsylvanians skip every election. Here’s why this year could be different

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Melissa Durko and Drew Heaton sit in the backyard of their South Philadelphia rowhouse

Melissa Durko, a baker, and her boyfriend, Drew Heaton, a chef, sit in the backyard of their South Philadelphia rowhouse. Neither will vote in the upcoming presidential election as a matter of principle. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Ask us: What do you want to know about voting and the 2020 election?

Debra Beckey thinks the country needs change in November.

In the 62-year-old Wynnewood resident’s mind, things have gone downhill under President Donald Trump. The rich aren’t paying enough in taxes. The coronavirus has spread unnecessarily.

Democratic candidate Joe Biden deserves a shot, says the retired drug counselor.

“I really think it’s time to get someone else,” she said. “I just don’t want to see Trump get in office again.”

As a resident of a crucial swing state that could determine the presidency, Beckey’s vote is coveted.

For months, political campaigns have been barraging people like her with fliers, commercials and online ads urging them to participate in the election.

Beckey’s take would be good news for Biden — but there’s just one problem.

She isn’t planning to vote.

“A lot of times when I voted I got picked a lot for jury duty,” she said. “So I stopped registering to vote, and I don’t get picked for jury duty anymore.”

Debra Beckey
Debra Beckey, 62, does not vote. As a resident of a crucial swing state, her vote is coveted. (Miles Bryan/WHYY)

There are millions of Pennsylvanians who, for whatever reason, make the same decision.

Beckey is part of a group more populous in Pennsylvania than those who supported either Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016: nonvoters. Neither the president nor the former Secretary of State garnered 3 million votes in the last cycle. But 39% of Pennsylvanians eligible to participate stayed on the sidelines — totaling nearly 4 million people.

Both the Trump and Biden campaigns are aggressively pursuing people who vote sporadically or have never voted at all — winning over even a tiny slice of that four million could help tip the state.

A survey of Pennsylvanians who did not vote in 2016, found nearly half of nonvoters wanted to cast ballots on Election Day, but were held back by logistical issues — bucking the stereotype of nonvoters as people who are checked out of politics.

Experts say this uniquely charged election, combined with easier access to mail-in voting, could get those nonvoters to come out to the polls in unprecedented numbers.

“Interest is through the roof and the availability of mail-in participation options should more than offset any possible negative impacts of the pandemic,” said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.

‘Simply not able to vote’

After the 2016 election, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study surveyed about 7,300 nonvoters nationwide about their political attitudes and actions, including 472 in Pennsylvania.

Last summer, Susquehanna University political science professors Nicholas Clark and Rolfe Peterson published a paper analyzing why those nonvoters didn’t vote.

For Keystone Crossroads, Clark crunched the Pennsylvania numbers alone. His finding: 45% of surveyed nonvoters said they wanted to cast a ballot, but did not due to personal reasons, including not being registered, having to work or being sick.

“I don’t think [nonvoters] are apathetic and uninterested in what’s going on,” said Clark, whose findings mirrored the national analysis. “Some of those people are simply not able to vote.”

Reading resident Cinthya Delarosa, 33, planned to vote Democratic in the local races last fall, but was derailed by an eviction notice she received the day before Election Day.

“That voting day I couldn’t think about nothing but … where we were going to stay,” Delarosa told Keystone Crossroads in February. 

Robert Giovanetti, 53, had never cast a ballot before he was convicted of felony perjury in 2012. The Lebanon County resident said someone during his trial told him that felons are not allowed to vote — a common misconception among the hundreds of thousands of people in Pennsylvania with felony convictions.

Giovanetti grew up in a family of union steelworkers — all lifelong Democrats. But in 2016, he was swayed by Trump’s promise to revitalize the steel industry. That year, he stayed home on Election Day thinking he couldn’t participate. Now, he plans to cast the first vote of his life to reelect the president.

“I feel a hell of a lot happier [that I can vote for Trump]” Gionavetti said.

The Trump campaign is counting on turning out more people like Giovanetti this year to make up for expected losses in the suburbs. One recent study found that nonvoters in Pennsylvania and other key battleground states prefer Trump. Overall, Democrats maintain an 8.1% edge in registered voters in Pa., but that’s down from 9.5% last year. 

“Our permanent ground game, combined with our unparalleled $350 million data operation, allows us to identify those Pennsylvanians who may not have voted in the last election but support all the President has accomplished in just his first term,” Trump campaign spokesperson Samantha Zager said in a statement.

But the Biden campaign thinks that this year’s contest is motivating left-leaning sporadic voters and nonvoters to action. The expansion of early voting options has opened the process to more people and early indications heavily favor Democrats. Of the nearly 670,000 Pennsylvanians who have already submitted ballots for this cycle, about 75% are registered Democrats.

“No matter … if they’ve never voted before at all, Pennsylvanians from all walks of life are joining the Biden coalition,” said Biden campaign spokesperson Michael Feldman in a statement.

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In 2016, Elliot Martin wasn’t particularly excited about either candidate running for president, but leaned towards voting for Clinton. However on election day the handyman, now 28, was traveling out of state.

“There’s probably a good chance that I would have voted if I had been in Pennsylvania,” said Martin, who lives in Lancaster. “But I didn’t know how to [get] an absentee ballot.”

This year, he’s already made a plan to be at the polls on November 3.

“A lot of Trump’s decisions have been pretty gross to me,” he said. “That’s for sure inspired me to vote.”

‘I feel this way because the political system is failing me’

About a quarter of Pennsylvania’s 2016 nonvoters were classified in the Susquehanna University survey data as “conditional” — meaning they were interested in politics, but none of the candidates inspired them enough to cast a ballot.

In 2016, Philadelphia resident Melissa Durko couldn’t bring herself to vote for a system she felt had failed her time and again — and that’s the case for her again this year.

“If we were no longer in a two-party system … I would consider voting,” said Durko, 31, who wants to see the U.S. adopt a state-sponsored universal health care system. “It’s basically the same person with two different masks — that’s all that it is right now.”

Melissa Durko outside her South Philadelphia rowhouse
Melissa Durko, 31, of South Philadelphia, will not vote in the presidential election. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Durko and her boyfriend, who also does not vote, have been facing unprecedented pressure this year from friends, family, and even their roommate to vote for Joe Biden. She said that’s only solidified their commitment to staying home.

“I feel this way because the political system is failing me,” Durko said, while running a white noise machine so her roommate would not overhear the interview.

Researcher Nicholas Clark said Democrats and Republicans typically don’t make much of an effort to win over this kind of nonvoter.

“If they’ve decided that they don’t like either campaign, there is not much that the campaigns can do,” he said.

Drew Heston outside his South Philadelphia rowhouse
Drew Heston, 32, of South Philadelphia, will not vote in the upcoming presidential election. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

But that also might be different this year. In September, Pennsylvania Democrats convinced the state supreme court to boot the Green Party off the presidential ballot, leaving left-leaning voters without another option at the top of the ticket.

That means Biden may secure more voters like Joshua Reaves, a 25-year-old organizer with the Philly Socialists. He’s turned off by Biden’s centrism and his opposition in the 1970s to federally-mandated school desegregation through busing. But, he said, he’s willing to do what it takes to get Trump out of office.

“I think everyone I know is really disappointed by Joe Biden, but still plans on casting a ballot for him,” Reaves said, calling it a “marked departure” from what his friends did in 2016.

‘Worth a try’

About 5% of Pennsylvania’s nonvoters in 2016 were classified by the Susquehanna University report as being “obstructed”: they actually tried to vote, but were thwarted by something like long lines at the polls, an undelivered absentee ballot, or intimidation at the polling place.

The other major group in the survey were classified as “apathetic” — those simply uninterested in the political process. About 18% of the surveyed nonvoters fell into that group.

Four years ago, Avery Johnson was one of them.

“I was very ignorant to [politics],” said the 25-year-old Philadelphia resident.

Avery Johnson
Avery Johnson, 25, plans to cast her first vote for Biden this year. (Miles Bryan/WHYY)

A lot has changed since then. Last year, Johnson had a baby. Then, in May, her grandmother got sick with coronavirus. All the while, gun violence has exploded in her West Philadelphia neighborhood. Johnson is worried about the world her son is growing up in. She thinks President Trump’s downplaying of the pandemic and what she describes as a lack of respect for Black people is making things worse.

Now, for the first time in her life, Johnson plans to go to the polls. On Nov. 3, she says she’ll push the button for Biden.

“I don’t know if my vote can make a change, I’m not sure, but I have a son to look after,” Johnson said. “It’s worth a try.”

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