By David K. Shipler
Not to throw too wet a blanket on Democrats’ euphoria in winning a Senate seat in deeply conservative Alabama, but let’s take a moment to reflect on the sad fact that the worthy candidate, Doug Jones, was elected by merely 20.2 percent of the state’s eligible voters—671,151 out of the 3.3 million who could have cast ballots. His unworthy opponent, the accused pedophile, confirmed bigot, and serial violator of the rule of law, Judge Roy Moore, got 19.5 percent of the electorate.
And the turnout was much higher than expected in a special election, a whopping 40.4 percent, versus the 25 percent that Alabama’s secretary of state had predicted. Wow. In this hotly contested race, which mixed morality with theology and ideology, which put control of the Senate in closer balance, and which exposed the tribal politics that afflicts so many Americans, only 6 out of 10 voters stayed home and let others decide. What an achievement for democracy.
The truth is, it is a democracy that we are in danger of losing unless much higher proportions of citizens participate, at the very least by going to the polls. Otherwise, the middle ground is abandoned to the zealous extremists, some of whom will vote away the civil discourse, the tolerance of political and social plurality, and even the legal rights that protect us all.
This is an urgent truth in presidential elections, just as in state and local contests. With the turnout at 59.3 percent in 2016, only 136.7 million cast ballots, out of 230.6 million eligible voters, whether registered or not. So the percentage needed for victory was very low. It took only 27.3 percent of the country’s eligible citizens over age 18 to put Donald Trump in the White House. (Hillary Clinton got 28.6 percent but of course lost the Electoral College.)
Rule by small minorities has been typical, as a look back two decades demonstrates:
1996 – Bill Clinton was elected by 26.3% of all eligible citizens.
2000 – George W. Bush, by 27.3%
2004 – Bush again, by 31.5%
2008 – Barack Obama, by 33.7%
Interviews with non-voters sketch a wide range of reasons for staying home. Some who don’t follow political issues closely are confused by the plethora of ads, biased news reports, and legitimate news that cascade through television and the Internet. Some are turned off by all politicians, especially the flawed candidates of recent years. Some feel so alienated from governmental structures that seem remote and unresponsive to their needs that they regard elected officials as universally false, no matter their party, and a single ballot here or there as inconsequential. Some, who work multiple jobs and swing shifts, and are inundated with childcare responsibilities or health problems, can’t or won’t make the time to vote.
Demands on time is one reason that early voting is helpful, especially to the working poor. And it’s a reason that conservative Republicans have undertaken voter-suppression measures to cut back on early voting and to require ID’s, knowing that many minorities and poor folks, especially city dwellers, don’t have driver’s licenses or other forms of identification. Purging voter rolls, lifetime bans on convicted felons, and other measures that affect minorities more than whites have also become as popular as poll taxes and literacy tests once were. Reports were heard this week of people being turned away from polling places in Alabama under the ID requirements, although not in sufficient numbers to tip the balance away from the Democrat.
Turnout has probably been damaged by the Supreme Court, which struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act that required most Southern states and certain northern jurisdictions with discriminatory racial histories to secure “pre-clearance” from the U.S. Justice Department before changing voting procedures. It’s reasonable to speculate that no such clearance could have been obtained by Alabama for its voter ID law.
One problem for Democrats is that voter turnout declines with income. That is, the lower the family income, the lower the participation rate, and exit polls show that in most elections, lower-income citizens tend to vote more Democratic.
In the 2016 presidential election, for example, the turnout of those with incomes over $150,000 a year was 80.3 percent, according to a Census Bureau study, but only 47.7 percent of those earning $10,000 to $14,999, and 41.4 percent of those under $10,000.
If analysis were done of close states, exit polls, and turnout by income, a conclusion could be reached on whether Clinton would have beaten Trump had lower-income people come out in larger numbers. The urban poor went for Clinton heavily while the rural blue-collar workers went strongly for Trump, so it’s not a given that an overall increase in turnout at the lower income levels would have deprived Trump of his victory. But it’s possible.
And it seems certain that Al Gore would have won in 2000 with greater participation by the poor. Three-quarters of those over $75,000 voted, 69 percent of those from $50,000 to $75,000, and so on down to only 38 percent of those under $10,000. If those with incomes under $25,000 had gone to the polls in the same proportions of those over $75,000, more than 6.8 million additional voters would have case ballots. Gore’s slight edge of 543,895 in the popular vote would have certainly grown enough to put him over the top in Florida, which would have meant the election.
So, enfranchising the disenfranchised, recruiting the alienated and apathetic to the polls, is essential to constructing a government responsive to real grass-roots needs. Otherwise, democracy withers. As a sign in a public housing project in the Watts section of Los Angeles said:
Just a reminder: the one on the bottom changes things a lot faster: Call 1-800-343-VOTE to register.