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What Some West Virginia Residents Have To Say On Why They Don't Vote


Voters from both parties appear highly engaged this year. But in every election, tens of millions of people don't vote - either because of barriers to voting or apathy or inconvenience. NPR's Don Gonyea went to the county with the lowest voter turnout rate in one of the lowest turnout states, West Virginia, to find out why people there sit out.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: McDowell County is so steeped in coal culture that in the summertime the local theater group features a play about a true tale of murder, the miners union and the coal bosses in the 1920s.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Well, I'm telling you to stand...






UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: ...And declare war and justice on these evil coal barons and their political pimps.

GONYEA: Coal still drives the politics here. Long a sure bet for Democrats, McDowell County has gone solidly Republican in recent national elections. Trump, with promises to save the coal industry, won 75 percent of the votes in the county in 2016. Forty-two-year-old Tammy Lester, who was downtown running errands with her 13-year-old daughter, says she likes Trump, but she's not seeing much good for the economy.

TAMMY LESTER: He's doing pretty good, I guess. But, you know, he promised all these jobs. Where they at down here? You know, I think they just overlook West Virginia.

GONYEA: Unemployment in the county is 9.3 percent. More than 1 in 3 live below the poverty line. Lester's support of Trump and her frustration with the economy make her a pretty typical resident here. She's got a lot of company in another area too.

I'll just ask the question. Do you vote?

LESTER: No, sometimes.

GONYEA: No, sometimes - that means?

LESTER: It's iffy.

GONYEA: You're not really committed to it.


GONYEA: She is registered but can't recall the last time she voted. Turnout in McDowell County was the worst in the state, 36 percent, in 2016. Lester tells me she works at a fast-food restaurant. She says politicians, from the president on down, don't care what happens here.

LESTER: Yeah, when our kids graduate, they have to leave. I just had my middle son graduate. He's got to leave. My daughter, when she graduates, where's she going to go? She'll have to leave.

GONYEA: Thirty-two-year-old Josh Mullins is another nonvoter, but he is a Democrat.

JOSH MULLINS: I just don't think we needed someone like Trump in office. I mean, he's got a mouth on him that may get us in trouble.

GONYEA: Mullins is currently laid off from a restaurant job.

MULLINS: I just - I don't think my vote matters.

GONYEA: Not at all?

MULLINS: No. I mean, Hillary won the popular vote, and we still have Trump for president.

GONYEA: So that kind of makes you down on the whole...


GONYEA: So the Electoral College fuels his cynicism about voting - finally to 26-year-old Brittany Jenkins, who sits in front of a floral shop she owns with her mom in the city of Welch. She is registered to vote but says she's only done so three times and only when she's actually known the person running for local office. She does not vote for president or governor - her reasoning...

BRITTANY JENKINS: Because we don't matter. We're so small. It really don't matter. I mean, literally look. You look up and down the streets. There's nobody.

GONYEA: She says it's like this place isn't even on anybody's radar - especially politicians'.

So you feel kind of disconnected from the whole political process here?

JENKINS: Yeah, I mean, disconnected from the world - period. I mean, we've just kind of been washed off the map.

GONYEA: And when you see ads on television, or when flyers for candidates show up in your mailbox, what do you think of that?

JENKINS: I've never got a flyer out of my mailbox.

GONYEA: No flyers, no targeted direct mail - it's something I heard from several people in McDowell County. They just feel ignored by any candidate who's not local. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.