This admonition from Ed Kilgore to progressives crowing over the November election results has been bumping around in the back of my head since I encountered it:
Yup. Our folks -- the young, new citizens, low income people of color -- just don't turn out in the same numbers in midterms as they do in presidential elections.
So what does it take to get more of them voting more regularly? Obviously more participation from these citizens would change the kind of society we make. And obviously, we do need to "fix" (as as the Prez said on E night) a voting system that makes it difficult to participate whether through registration hoops and/or other obstacles like long voting lines and short hours. But also, we need to think in terms of helping folks acquire the habit of voting.
The people who are more likely turn out every time -- older, whiter, and more affluent folks -- are people who think of themselves as rightful, responsible participating citizens. Part of their self-definition is that they are voters; voting is what good citizens like them do, pretty much every election. How do we encourage that affirming self-understanding among currently less engaged people? Those of us who work in campaigns have long assumed that voting is "habit forming." But how do we help people get the habit?
In Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns, Lisa García Bedolla and Melissa R. Michelson report on their research on just that question. They studied the efforts of community groups that were turning out new voters over multiple cycles, looking at what sort of activities raised participation and helped create the voting habit. And they concluded that it is possible to draw these folks into regular participation. But this can be hard to see if our focus is mainly on turn out in presidential contests. It was the contacts in previous, low turnout, often local and insignificant, elections that raised turn out in presidential years.
These findings have real world implications.
- If we want to build the habit of voting -- and Democrats sure should! --we need to contest every election in order to maximize the number of opportunities for people to experience that cognitive shift. It doesn't matter if the election is to select a dog-catcher. The habit built by participation can have effects in the big contests.
- We need institutional players to make investments in minor elections so that we can reap the rewards down the line. The experiments these researchers carried out tracked the foundation-funded work of small local community organizations. These formations enjoy the enhanced legitimacy that comes from being neighbors among the target population, but they lack the stability and scale to rapidly move large numbers into voting. As non-profits, they cannot legally work on candidate campaigns. They make good labs to carry out experiments; they don't have the capacity to be the main game. There were was a time when urban units of political parties saw this task of incorporation as their work. We need Democratic Party organs to see this as the party's most vital function. Outsourcing it to NGOs won't cut it.
The picture above comes from a pretty scuzzy San Francisco Mission District alley. Some one is on this voting thing ...