MADISON, W.Va. >> 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 off people. Opioids started poisoning her neighbors. As her town lost its vigor, 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 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. 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, which 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 McDonald’s analysis of responses to the Census Bureau from 2000 to 2016.
“The costs of voting are not terribly high compared to the way they’ve been at times in American history,” said Benjamin Highton, a political scientist at the University of California at Davis, who has studied voter ID laws. “People simply have other things they are more interested in, like making ends meet on a day-to-day basis.”
Americans used to vote at much higher rates — sometimes above 80 percent in the second half of the 19th century. In those years, a multitude of parties brought a vibrancy to political life. Party machines helped people with jobs, fuel bills and funeral expenses in return for votes.
But turnout declined sharply from 1900 through the 1940s, as the power of the party machines declined and voter suppression shut out blacks in the South and many immigrants in the North. The rate of voting has never recovered. The last time more than half of eligible voters turned out for a midterm election was 1914, said McDonald.
The United States’ turnout in national elections lags behind other democratic countries with developed economies, ranking 26th out of 32 among peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to the Pew Research Center.
Perhaps the most significant change has been in who votes. Unlike in the 19th century, voter turnout is now highly correlated with class. More than 80 percent of Americans with college degrees vote compared with about 40 percent of Americans without high school degrees, according to Jonathan Nagler, a political scientist at New York University and co-author of a 2014 book, “Who Votes Now.
“There is a class skew that is fundamental and very worrying,” said Alexander Keyssar, a historian at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, who wrote “The Right to Vote.” “Parts of society remain tuned out and don’t feel like active citizens. There is this sense of disengagement and powerlessness.”
The effect, he said, has been a more unequal society and “more of a gap between what we say this country is about and what it really is.”
Until about the 1980s, West Virginia had some of the highest voting rates in the country. In 1952, the first year Hill voted, 77 percent of West Virginians turned out, according to McDonald, a stunning number by today’s standards and higher than the national rate then of 62 percent. Voting back then was festive, a social occasion at the polls. People put on their nice clothes. Women brought cornbread and pinto beans.
“You’d go in there and there’d be people everywhere,” said Albert Baisden, a retired trucking company owner in Dingess, recalling election times in the 1950s. “You had to fight your way in through the crowd to get to vote. You couldn’t hardly get a parking place. Everybody was grabbing you by the right arm, by the left arm, saying, ‘Vote for me!’”
Back then, this patch of West Virginia was more vibrant, as well. Hill recalled that her hotel was full almost every night, mostly with men working in construction for the mines. She remembers they used to take off their work boots in their trucks and change into slippers so they would not track mud on her carpet.
But in the span of a generation, the town’s sense of community fell apart, she said. Hill said she has had 27 flat-screen TVs stolen from her rooms. Eventually she stopped replacing them. Even the cushions on the couch in her lobby were stolen; a lawn chair pad is in their place.
“We have nothing now,” Hill said, sitting in the lobby of the hotel, an airy room with tall ceilings and wall paneling adorned with teapots and cuckoo clocks. “It’s all gone.”
Voting went down, too. The midterm election of 1998 was the first time in Hill’s life she did not vote. She was not alone: Only 29 percent of eligible West Virginians voted that year, according to McDonald’s data.
The strongest predictor of voting, according to Highton, is political engagement. Those who are interested in politics — whether they grew up in families that followed it or developed interest as an adult — tend to vote, he said.
“It’s like being a sports fan,” he said. “Some people just aren’t.”
Clara Bender, 69, a waitress in Madison, has never voted.
“I just never got into it,” she said, as she cleared a table for a customer. “I got married, had babies — just never had the time.”
Bender said she did not know enough about the candidates to choose.
But she is public spirited in other ways. As a young mother, she got involved in her children’s school. She raised her granddaughter and helped her open the restaurant where their family now works. These days, she spends most of her time being a patient listener for a community whose heart is broken. The woman she was just serving, she said, had a son addicted to drugs and was crying when she walked in. “I have to make time for them,” she said.
As for never voting: “It just didn’t bother me.”
To Carrena Rouse, an English teacher at Scott High School, that is a bitter pill, especially after watching the extraordinary energy over the statewide teachers’ strike earlier this year.
“People say my vote won’t do any good, but I beg to differ,” said Rouse, who was among the thousands of teachers who went on strike.
She believes the state is dominated by coal money and politicians who pander to it precisely because people let it be by not voting. And she thought the teachers’ strike and the outpouring of public support they got would translate into more votes in the state’s primary in May.
But she was disappointed that only 26 percent of registered voters went to the polls, “after everything that happened,” she said.
“That’s the disturbing part,” she said. “I don’t want to use language like ‘betrayed,’ but pretty close.”
Still, the voting rate on Primary Day was up by nearly a third from the primary in 2014, according to West Virginia’s Office of the Secretary of State.
More young people went to the polls, too. According to TargetSmart, a political analytics company in Washington, D.C., turnout for people under 30 was up by half in the West Virginia primary compared with the primary in 2014, but was still less than the national rise.
Many younger people interviewed in Madison last month said that they would vote, but that they did not spend much time thinking about politics or consider it a part of their identity. Jennifer Anderson, a worker at Miller Brothers Pharmacy, said she did not know the political orientation of her colleagues. She said she would probably vote, but she has not yet decided for whom or for which party.
“Some of my issues are on one side, and some are on the other,” she said.
Turnout in West Virginia was higher in May despite a new voter ID law the state put in effect in January. Generally, new laws around voting access can make it easier or harder to vote, but researchers say they do not explain much about the country’s lackluster turnout. About 2 percent of people told the Census Bureau they did not vote in the last midterm election because of problems with registration, according to McDonald.
For Hill, national politics feels distant these days, as if events are happening on another planet.
“I’m just to the point where I’m so disillusioned over what goes on,” she said of politicians in Washington and her state. “All they are doing is slinging mud at each other. If they would just stop the squabbling and think of the people.”
Besides, she had more important things to think about. She was busy washing sheets and cleaning rooms. A pipe was leaking and she needed a plumber.
“My sister said, ‘Sis, we didn’t vote so we don’t have the right to complain,’” she said. “That may be true, but I might have felt even worse voting for some of these people.”