Why people do not vote

Forward Progressive ran an excellent piece on why poor people vote for Republicans.

I have a simpler explanation: poor people do not vote. For example, the recent election in Kentucky: Bevin beat Conway 53–44. But less than 31 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.

I used to be the chair of the Voter Registration Committee for the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, and before that, the chair of the Precinct Operations Committee. Voter registration and voter turnout is a subject I have given a great deal of thought to. I have studied precinct returns with great detail, and while I lived in Fairfax, studied street sheets. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, street sheets show a precinct’s voting history sorted by addresses. For example, you can look at an individual address, see how many voters are listed at that addresses, and which elections they vote in. Thus you can see who votes in primaries, and which primary they vote in (Virginia does not register voters by party, so a history of voting in primaries is the only indication of party identity.) You can also see whether voters only turn out for Presidential years, or whether they vote in off year elections. Street sheets tell you a great deal about a neighborhood’s character.

What I saw confirmed earlier work I did in other jurisdictions. Poor people do not vote. Lower middle class do not vote. Indeed, middle class voters frequently do not vote in local elections. Voting is a middle class and upper middle class value. If Democrats are to win elections, they must deal with this reality.

Poor people, indeed middle class people, experience powerlessness on a daily basis, and as Saul Alinsky teaches us:

“Never go outside the expertise of your people.” It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone. (Organizations under attack wonder why radicals don’t address the “real” issues. This is why. They avoid things with which they have no knowledge.)

Poor and middle class people, the 99%, have no control over their rent or mortgage, no control over their bank, their utility company, their insurance company, children’s school, place of employment, or a host of other institutions that shape their life. Political parties are asking people to believe that once a year they can go into a booth, press some buttons, and materially affect their life. Nothing in their experience in life suggests that this simple act will have real consequences. So how can party activists at the local level change that? Well, it would be nice if Democrats who won elections didn’t instantly turn around and start attacking Social Security and other institutions crucial to the well being of the 99%. But even in the face of that sort of betrayal, there are things that local activists can do to drive up turn out.

Non-voters will respond to personal appeals to vote. We saw that in Fairfax County, which is how it went from a swing jurisdiction to a solid Democratic one. A group of us, determined to shift Fairfax, worked every low rent apartment complex, walking around in the heat of July and August, registering voters. We brought in thousands of new voters. Just the act of having voter registration activities conducted in their neighborhoods motivated those already registered to vote, so turnout and Democratic vote both dramatically increased.

Then in October, after the cut off for voter registration, we went back to those neighborhoods, knocking on the doors of registered voters, and asked them to vote for Democratic candidates. Even those who feel powerless will respond to individual volunteers.

We saw this nationally with Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy, the radical notion that Democrats should contend every office in every jurisdiction. It was a spectacularly successful, winning Democratic majorities in the House, Senate, and ultimately the White House and most of the governors. For reasons best known to himself, Obama dismantled the 50 state strategy with disastrous consequences for the Democratic Party.

This is why I am so encouraged by Bernie Sanders’ promise to revive the 50 state strategy. The only way we can achieve the political revolution he is calling for is to carry the fight to every jurisdiction in our country.

Note -In my book, The precinct captain’s guide to political victory, I have a detailed description of voter registration, GOTV, and pushing back against voter suppression.

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