“Yesterday, upon the stair

I met a man who wasn’t there.

He wasn’t there again today,
Oh how I wish he’d go away!”

Some readers may recall these lines from an old children’s poem. It comes to mind, because today the U.S. includes many people who are not there, either in the political process or the workplace.

The absence of the people “who aren’t there” has a major effect on the course of the country, but they risk being overlooked.

In 2020, the turnout for the presidential election set new records for the number and the percentage of the eligible population that cast ballots. The high voter participation, as reported by the Census Bureau, was both a source of national pride and, because it was so high, a cause of disbelief for some of the loser’s partisans.


But that misses another major point. An impressive 155.5 million people voted for president, about 67 percent of all those who might have voted. That means about one-third of the total population that could have voted stayed away from the polls – about 76.6 million people.

Admittedly, no country has perfect voter participation, but several reach 80 percent. If the U.S. had reached that level, another 30 million people would have voted in a country that considers itself the world’s leading democracy. That’s more than the population of Australia and New Zealand combined.

In effect, the results of the U.S. presidential elections were Biden 81.3 million, Nobody 76.6 million and Trump 74.2 million.

Many of the people who don’t vote stay away for a reason. When asked anecdotally, they may say that there’s not much difference between the candidates or their votes don’t matter or they simply don’t pay attention. Of course, some are unable to vote because of personal circumstances or the effects of political voter suppression efforts.

In the end, they are ignored. Take a look at the political polls. They try to tell us what “likely voters” would do if the election were held today. If you haven’t yet decided to vote or don’t want to respond to the conventional choices offered by the pollsters, you are excluded as if you don’t exist.

By offering scripted choices only to people who say they plan to vote, the pollsters and the media may produce a seriously distorted view of the temper of the country. We routinely miss the opinions and sentiments of tens of millions of Americans.


The effect of those who are not included can produce surprises from time to time. Angry and sometimes violent rallies may include people who do not often vote and are dismissed by pollsters. If “unlikely voters” are interviewed, are they asked what’s on their minds or only given structured either-or choices that are easier to tabulate?

In short, we might know more about our own country during the current crisis of divisiveness and change if more people were taken more fully into account.

Then, there’s the Great Resignation. Millions of people have been quitting their jobs after undergoing forced unemployment caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Their absence is evident as help wanted signs sprout and consumers struggle to obtain basic services.

As the country began to adjust to the pandemic’s effects, it was reasonable to hope and expect that the economy would return to its former condition. But the Covid experience caused deeper changes than anticipated and the country is still adjusting to them. We have come commonly to speak of a “new normal.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, known for its objectivity, reports that in March, the number of job openings (11.5 million) and the number of what BLS calls “quits” (4.5 million) were both at record highs.

Many quits can find better paying jobs elsewhere. However, contrary to a New York Times article, the BLS does not report that virtually all have returned to the workforce. A top executive told the Times, “We’re living in this amazing transformation of the workplace, and we don’t even know it….”


The person who isn’t there knows it. They may have chosen to work one job, not two, and accept less income or to become “gig workers,” seeking work when and for as long as they want. Some who chose to retire during the pandemic are not coming back. Others may have been dropped from the labor force, because they decided simply to stay at home.

Whether all the quits will return to work may depend on employers providing better wages and working conditions. Their return may also require greater acceptance of remote work and a reduction in work hours. Pay has been improving as employers come to realize the effect of the Great Resignation.

The influence of the invisible citizen and the disappearing worker should not be ignored. Wishing won’t make them “go away.”

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: