The great myth of America’s participatory democracy is that people actually participate. In the 2016 election—the controversial, generation-defining 2016 election—61 percent of voting-age citizens cast a ballot, according to census data. And that was a presidential year. The last time America held midterm elections, 42 percent of voting-age citizens participated. This has been the trend for midterms for at least the past four decades: Turnout hovers at or below half of voting-age citizens.
In 2016, the lowest-turnout congressional district in the country was Arizona’s Third, a massive stretch of land that includes chunks of five counties in the state’s southwestern corner. Slightly more than 33 percent of voting-age citizens cast a ballot here that year—all the more shocking considering that the district includes parts of Phoenix and Tucson, the state’s two most populous cities. The district is majority-minority, with more than two-thirds of the population identifying as Hispanic, black, or American Indian. By contrast, Arizona’s Fifth, the state’s highest-turnout district in 2016, had almost twice as much voter participation in 2016. The Fifth is like the Third’s demographic inverse: According to state data, it is nearly three-quarters white. At their closest point, the two districts are less than 30 miles away from each other.
Many stories about voter turnout are framed in terms of lament or hope, either chiding nonvoters for their dereliction of duty or suggesting that this just might be the year when disengaged Americans finally turn out. On the margins, some people are prevented from voting: In the past, Arizona has mishandled or not counted thousands of ballots based on a failure to cross-check voters’ citizenship status. But a deeper question lies in these turnout numbers, which are almost so constant across elections as to seem inevitable: Why is American politics so alienating that a huge portion of citizens prefers to forfeit their rights and sit elections out?
To answer the question, Emma Green of The Atlantic went to Arizona’s Third District to find out why people chose not to vote. Find out what those Arizonas told her, here.