Thursday, April 24, 2014

Inequality and voting

A friend with whom I've worked to increase voter participation in communities of color asked for comments on this insightful article about "inequality and the electoral system." The whole is very much worth reading, but I want to pull out a couple of points. Daniel Laurison writes:

One reason people may not vote is that they feel disconnected from the political process. People are more likely to participate in politics if they believe it is something that they are legitimately entitled to do – in other words, if they think of it as something for ‘people like me’.  People can be connected to electoral politics by being asked directly to participate, or by knowing someone who is involved.

I couldn't agree with this more. This goes to the essence of what community organizers who dip a toe into the electoral arena are struggling for: they seek to help people create a sense that voting is something "we do" in our community and to build the habit of participation. A participating community is harder for politicians to brush off.

Particular campaigns are something else again. They are not about a community's empowerment. They are about winning for a particular candidate or issue in a particular immediate, time-limited context. Sometimes that goal may be assisted by using resources -- time and money -- to engage low income communities and communities of color; more often campaigns think the effort will not be worth it. And campaigns sometimes make false assumptions about what sort of community engagement is possible or desirable because of the racial, cultural baggage they bring to their project.

Laurison points out that people who work on campaigns frequently come from privileged backgrounds -- and consequently assume politics is about the interplay of people like themselves. That certainly has sometimes been my experience. On the first campaign I was hired on over 40 years ago, I found myself working with a fancy New York lawyer and the adult children of prominent East Coast academics. I come from a comfortable background myself, but these people, nice as they were, made me feel like an alien being.

Moreover, he notes that people who work on campaigns learn from more experienced operatives that there are things you just don't do if you want to prove your chops -- and one of those is to think you can find the voters you need to win among people who are not habitual members of the electorate. That route looks too hard; the outreach costs too much; and besides, very likely you don't have the right people and tactics to do it. So campaigns don't try.

These reasons campaigns don't even try to widen the electorate are sometimes rational, though always short sighted.

But contempory political polarization is undermining that conventional wisdom. From a purely utilitarian point of view, it begins to look as if a Democratic Party that wants to win beyond Presidential surge years is going to have to learn to turn out less likely voters: young people and communities of color. It is now generally agreed that Democrats got hammered in Congressional races in 2010 not because people had decided they hated President Obama, "his" health insurance reform, or completely blamed him for a terrible economy -- no, the base Democratic constituencies just aren't used to voting in midterm elections.

This year, in some places, establishment Democrats are putting money and brains into how to turn out unlikely voters because they understand their survival depends on it. This particularly applies in tight statewide Senate races whose results may decide which party controls that legislative body. And, at least by past standards, they are working at the project. For example:

Part of that effort is focused on boosting black turnout from traditional midterm levels to something closer to presidential levels in Arkansas and Louisiana, as well as one of the Democrats’ best pickup opportunities in Georgia, and potentially Michigan and North Carolina — both of which saw plenty of attention in 2008 and 2012.

Rothenblog, Roll Call

Political guru Stu Rothenberg goes on to insist, accurately, that campaigns can't expect to create huge swings in voting behavior through this sort of effort. Gains on the order of 2 percent are a lot. But putting resources in people and money into these efforts can win these close contests. (If they do, look out for a new conventional wisdom; campaigns are faddish.)

And it is worth understanding that such gains can become cumulative over time, not that any particular campaign much cares about that during any particular election cycle. In established African-American communities this has taken place to a significant extent. In 2012, commentators marveled that Black voting rates as a percentage of their community's overall numbers were even higher than those of whites. Was this just because President Obama was on the ballot? Well, perhaps, in part. But in the 2013 Virginia Governor's race, African Americans again turned out at the same level as whites for an under-inspiring white corporate Democrat (who won). Black voters in places where the habit of voting has become established are participating at levels like those of whites.

Part of what is going on here is that age is an under-appreciated variable in creating patterns of participation. Across all communities -- white and of color, rich and poor -- older people vote more habitually. Putting aside other barriers to voting, such as citizenship status, past felony convictions and Republican voter suppression efforts, eligible voters in communities of color are simply on average younger than the great mass of whites.

Throughout the country, younger age groups are more brown than older age groups. Will more of these people vote as they age? Very possibly. That is the historical pattern. This makes efforts like Battleground Texas particularly important. Veterans of the Obama campaigns are trying to bring grassroots organizing techniques to building Latino and African American participation in that difficult state. They seem to have some funding for the project. This may not look like much right away, but putting resources into it should bring higher participation down the line.

All this activity is good, at least for Democrats, but I'm describing "outside" forces bringing money and expertise into non-participating communities -- can this really be good for the communities? I like to hope it can. These sorts of efforts only work because some members of the under-participation population decide it is time for a change. Scratch any successful voter registration, voter education, or "get out the vote" campaign and there will be some devoted local leaders who are central to the effort. Political parties and other organizations can provide funding and even some workers -- but vibrant campaign organizing isn't going to happen without local buy-in. I've seen more than a few dead campaign offices; lots of phones and paper, no people. I've also enjoyed turn out campaigns that hummed with local energy.

This goes back to Laurison's first point: people vote because they think voting is for "people like me." They won't vote if they experience "the system" as completely rigged against them. If politicians want their votes -- and right now the Democratic Party needs their votes desperately at all levels -- they need to feel over time, incompletely, but genuinely, that voting is worth it.

Does our system make voting worth it? For all our stifling inequality, I still say "yes." But do people who are only now coming into the process agree? That's the question for our democracy.

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