Lula Hill voted in just about every election once she became old enough in 1952. Her coal mining family of registered Democrats believed that elections were like church services: You didn’t skip them. But over time, her sense of civic obligation faded. Mines started laying people off. Opioids started poisoning her neighbors. As her town lost its vigor, Ms. Hill watched as smiling politicians kept making promises and, in her view, growing richer. By the late 1990s, when political leaders — Democrat or Republican — talked about the greater good, she no longer believed them. “I just got to the point, I said, ‘I’m not going do it anymore,’” said Ms. Hill, sitting on a couch in the lobby of the hotel she owns and runs, the Hotel Madison, 30 miles south of Charleston. “I just can’t vote for any of them in good conscience.” She has not voted since 1996 and said she has no intention of starting in November. Ms. Hill is hardly alone in West Virginia, a state with one of the lowest rates of voter turnout in the country and where the Democratic senator, Joe Manchin III, faces a tough race.
This year’s election carries enormous political stakes, but if history is any guide, the vast majority of eligible voters will stay home on Election Day. Slightly more than a third of eligible voters turned out across the country in the last midterm elections, the lowest share since 1942, according to Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida, who runs the United States Elections Project that tracks voting data back to 1789.
And while turnout has been higher in this season’s special elections and primaries, experts say that in November it is still unlikely to break out of the middling range it has been stuck in for nearly a century.
People typically cite one of two reasons for why they do not vote in midterm elections: they are either too busy or not interested, according to Dr. McDonald’s analysis of responses to the Census Bureau from 2000 to 2016.