By David K. Shipler
“Have you registered to vote?” the white cashier asked the black cashier at a hardware store. Both young women looked barely 18.
“No,” the black woman answered, because then she’d get called for jury duty.
I groaned out loud. So did a man at the next counter. You have to vote, we told her. In the quarter century since I’d moved to this county in Maryland, I explained, I’d been called for jury duty a total of two times. The other guy said his total was zero. Then he corrected himself: once, he said.
People give lots of reasons for not voting, and the lower the income, the lower the turnout, a fact that hurts Democrats and those who want to boost government anti-poverty programs. I’ve heard non-voters say that voting won’t change anything and takes time they don’t have. They can’t get off from work, they’re stressed and busy, and they’ve been made dizzy by the barrage of lying campaign ads. But to avoid jury duty? That was a first. (It was also mistaken, because jury pools in Montgomery County, where we were standing, are drawn from lists of licensed drivers as well as registered voters.)
“This is terrible!” my fellow shopper declared. “It’s part of being a citizen.” You have to vote, we both told her. She gave us a pleasant smile.
If this election is as close as predicted, turnout will be decisive, which is why phones and doorbells in swing states are perpetually ringing, why Republicans are devising ingenious methods to suppress voting by minorities, and why batteries of lawyers are poised on both sides to flood the courts with lawsuits.
Looking at the arithmetic of the contested 2000 election, the last one where the outcome was tight, shows vividly that the lower turnout among low-income voters made the difference. Three-quarters of those with annual incomes over $75,000 voted, and the rate declined as income fell, until only 38% of those under $10,000 cast ballots.
According to exit polls, lower-income citizens tend to vote more heavily Democratic. So, if those earning under $25,000 had voted at the same 75% rate as those over $75,000, most of the 6.8 million additional votes would have gone to Al Gore, who would have won by even more than his nationwide margin of 500,000 over George W. Bush. Florida would surely have gone Gore’s way, and the eight years from 2001 to 2009 would have been very different for the country—and for certain other countries.
In this election, too, those of low income have a much higher stake than they typically acknowledge. As vice president, Paul Ryan would be budgeting Medicaid practically out of existence (converting it into block grants to the states), the food stamp program would wither, housing subsidies would subside, day care programs for the poor would decline along with job training, the earned income tax credit would be cut back, and the mythical “safety net” would become even more threadbare than it is.
So, the low-income have as much to gain from electing Obama as the rich do from electing Romney. That’s in the short term. In the longer view, the rich also have a good deal to gain from a Democratic administration with an ambitious agenda for social justice, because the wealthy also suffer when poor children are poorly fed, poorly housed, poorly schooled in neighborhoods where the horizon of possibility is so close at hand that it blinds people’s imaginations to their own possibilities.
How do the rich pay a price? By depending on a labor force so unskilled that it cannot compete in a ruthless global marketplace. By reinforcing an underclass that is more likely to end up in emergency rooms and prisons, less likely to generate taxable income, less able to contribute the brain power needed for the new millennium. And when the economy is drained of talent, the wealthy prosper less. If altruism doesn’t motivate voters, if a morality beyond the narrow issues of abortion and gay marriage doesn’t move them, then perhaps this bit of self-interest can be considered.
Have you seen any ads by the Democrats spelling this out? Me neither.
So I’ve been remembering the conversation among the cashiers, which took place several months ago, when there was still time to register.
On the way out, the other shopper seemed grief stricken. “I’m a professor,” he told me. “I just moderated a panel of Freedom Riders, now in their seventies,” who’d been beaten for these rights. The audience was packed with students who later asked what they could do, how they could get involved to make change. “And this is a black girl,” he said, nodding toward her. Her grandparents may have fought for this freedom, he said, maybe died for it.
“You should tell her that,” I suggested. But he had been shocked into some kind of mourning, and shaking his head, went out the door. So I turned back and told her about his moderating a discussion by Freedom Riders. Her eyes widened. Voting is crucial, I said. And so is serving on juries, that other role in which the individual citizen is granted immense power. A lot of countries don’t have juries, I explained, and I told her of the Soviet law professor I’d known who had watched American and British jurors, laymen, rise to their awesome responsibilities, and then wrote legislation introducing juries into some Russian trials.
“Have I persuaded you?” I asked.
She didn’t answer, but she looked as if she were thinking.