10.01.12

Getting non-voters to the polls

Posted in Around The Nation, Around The State, Commentary, Elections at 10:50 am by wcnews

This recent Texas Observer article takes on the issue of voter apathy in Texas, No Shows: Why So Few Texans Bother to Vote. The article does a good job of pointing out why many Texans, who would likely vote Democratic, don’t show up on election day.

In August, Texans Together, a nonprofit organizing group that works in Alief, convened two focus groups of Alief residents unlikely to vote and grilled them for a couple of hours about their voting habits, their perceptions of the political system and their knowledge of policy issues.

Few of them planned to vote. Most felt there was no point. One man told the moderator that there’s no sense in voting because “if you vote and try to push, to put your pen out there, they’re going to put some junk out there and change it back to what they want.”

In the focus-group transcripts, I saw a strange paradox: the respondents were involved in politics, in that they had issues they cared about, which they wanted to discuss. They were all involved in their community, at least to the point of participating in a focus group. But they had no faith, at all, in the integrity of the process. They talked about voting like some people might talk about church attendance—a noble thing to do, certainly, but unlikely to do much practical good.

This is the problem: We’ve been talking about voting as though it’s like the weather, something that just sort of happens. But it’s not. And nowhere is that more evident than in Texas, which has one of the lowest voter-turnout rates in the nation, especially among Latinos. There are many reasons people don’t vote, and Republican leaders in Texas have enacted policies to dissuade people from voting and drawn district maps intended to dilute the power of minority voters. But the central problem is still apathy.

Demographics in Texas are such that, as many a media story has observed, Democratic and progressive candidates could be competitive right now—except that so many voters are disengaged. And they’re likely to remain disengaged and apathetic as long as no one is talking to them about why voting matters.

It makes a pretty good case that elections would be entirely different, and the demographic effects would have already taken place if, if there was higher voter turnout in Texas.

Texas remains a conservative-run state with low taxes and beleaguered social service and education systems—a place that favors the wealthy even as poor and minority populations are growing. To understand why Texas is the way it is, you have to understand that we vote at rates dramatically below the rest of the country.
Texas is consistently in the bottom five states for voter turnout. In the 2010 election, about 41 percent of eligible voters turned out nationwide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Texas, 32 percent did. That means Rick Perry was elected to his third full term by just 17 percent of the state’s eligible voters.

Among Hispanics, these rates are even lower. The national Latino voting rate was close to 50 percent in 2008. But in Texas that year, just 38 percent of Latinos turned out to vote. In California, 57 percent of Latinos went to the polls.

In 2008, Latinos accounted for almost 40 percent of the eligible voters in Texas, but cast only 12 percent of the votes. In Harris County, fewer than a quarter of eligible Latinos—citizens over 18 whether they’re registered to vote or not—decided to vote. Among working-class Latinos, turnout was in the low teens.

That was for a presidential election. The numbers are even lower for statewide elections. This is the flaw in the Texas-turning-Democratic argument. In 2010, the Houston Chronicle, considering the Bill White gubernatorial campaign in light of Latino population growth, asked: “Is this the year? The year that the state’s soon-to-be-majority minority group begins to exert the power and political influence reflective of its formidable numbers? The year that long-beleaguered Texas Democrats climb aboard the demographic express and ride out of the political wilderness?”

It was not the year. White and the rest of the Democratic slate got smashed. No Democrat has won a statewide race in Texas since 1994, a losing streak that encompasses 91 races. If Latino voters had turned out at anywhere near California’s rates, or even the national average, White might have had a chance.

In fact, if Texas Latinos participated in politics at the same rates they do in other Latino-rich states—California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona—then Texas would already be a swing state. Texas has about the same percentage of Latinos as California. If they had turned out at the same rates as Anglos in 2008, 1.2 million more Latinos would have voted, according to Census figures. McCain beat Obama in Texas by 951,000 votes.

And then points out that the hard work of registering voters and turning them out isn’t happening.

There is an unfortunate habit in a lot of political writing on this subject to treat demographic projections as deterministic. We talk about voting as though it’s an inevitable part of people’s lives, and they only have to be persuaded to vote the way we want. But there’s nothing inherent to Latinos about voting Democrat, or about voting at all. In the real world, “voting” isn’t a thing that just happens. It isn’t a “demographic express” you can hop on. Real people either decide to take off work, find their way to the polls, stand in line and vote, or they don’t. That’s a decision with costs and consequences—costs that fall most heavily on those in the lowest strata of society.

The wealthy vote the poor don’t. Income inequality keeps the wealthy in charge. The only thing that will change this is a sustained effort, in good times and bad, and that takes money.

Because Texas is so large, and so non-competitive, said Mike Lux, a Democratic consultant based in D.C., national Democrats have been reluctant to invest money in the state. What happened with Texas, likely, is that very early in the 2010 election-cycle—probably 2009—a bunch of DNC decision makers looked at Texas’ demographics and dismal voter turnout, shook their heads, and said, ‘Well, no shot here.’

“When states are more competitive, they get more resources,” Lux said. “They decided it wasn’t worth the investment.

“Someday, a campaign will look at Texas and see that the numbers have changed enough to justify a big voter-turnout push. But right now, Texas is so big, and has such a huge population, that that would cost too much money to be worth it.”

This means that Texans are on their own. There are people in Houston who are working to close the gap. Texans Together, for instance. Another group trying to organize is Mi Familia Vota, a voting-rights nonprofit that has been moving east from California. In Texas, the organization works mostly in Sharpstown and the near north side of Houston, between downtown and the 610 Loop. They have 15 canvassers trying to register and turn out about 9 percent of the city’s roughly 160,000 unregistered but eligible Latino voters. These canvassers work at community events and sit outside El Ahorro supermarkets, trying to sign people up to vote.

Carlos Duarte, an activist with Mi Familia Vota, finds that what works best is not assuming that people understand the issues. “You have to attach it to something. You have to take the issues and make them concrete. Latino families tend to have a lot of kids. So they worry about education. So we would be out at community events. We would say to people, ‘the Texas Legislature has cut $5 billion from public schools. Have you noticed a difference in your child’s school?’

“And they would say, ‘Yes, I notice there are more kids in classes, there are fewer programs.’

“And we’d say, ‘Okay, well, you can do something about this. You can register to vote.’ And they generally say, ‘Sign me up.’ Someone has to make the connection. They have noticed the change, but they haven’t connected it to their vote.”

It’s a long article with a lot of good information and I recommend reading the whole thing.

This Matt Taibbi article adds to why so few show up, This Presidential Race Should Never Have Been This Close.  If Democrats would have put the blame for our trouble where it belongs this election would be looking like a landslide.

The mere fact that Mitt Romney is even within striking distance of winning this election is an incredible testament to two things: a) the rank incompetence of the Democratic Party, which would have this and every other election for the next half century sewn up if they were a little less money-hungry and tried just a little harder to represent their ostensible constituents, and b) the power of our propaganda machine, which has conditioned all of us to accept the idea that the American population, ideologically speaking, is naturally split down the middle, whereas the real fault lines are a lot closer to the 99-1 ratio the Occupy movement has been talking about since last year.

Think about it. Four years ago, we had an economic crash that wiped out somewhere between a quarter to 40% of the world’s wealth, depending on whom you believe. The crash was caused by an utterly disgusting and irresponsible class of Wall Street paper-pushers who loaded the world up with deadly leverage in pursuit of their own bonuses, then ran screaming to the government for a handout (and got it) the instant it all went south.

These people represent everything that ordinarily repels the American voter. They mostly come from privileged backgrounds. Few of them have ever worked with their hands, or done anything like hard work. They not only don’t oppose the offshoring of American manufacturing jobs, they enthusiastically support it, financing the construction of new factories in places like China and India.

They’ve relentlessly lobbied the government to give themselves tax holidays and shelters, and have succeeded at turning the graduated income tax idea on its head by getting the IRS to accept a sprawling buffet of absurd semantic precepts, like the notions that “capital gains” and “carried interest” are somehow not the same as “income.”l

They could have followed Rick Perstein’s “Rules of Liberal Political Success“. And those are more important then ever and Democrats must realize what The Real Referendum is in the upcoming election.

Consider, in particular, the proposal to raise the Social Security retirement age, supposedly to reflect rising life expectancy. This is an idea Washington loves — but it’s also totally at odds with the reality of an America in which rising inequality is reflected not just in the quality of life but in its duration. For while average life expectancy has indeed risen, that increase is confined to the relatively well-off and well-educated — the very people who need Social Security least. Meanwhile, life expectancy is actually falling for a substantial part of the nation.

Now, there’s no mystery about why Simpson-Bowles looks the way it does. It was put together in a political environment in which progressives, and even supporters of the safety net as we know it, were very much on the defensive — an environment in which conservatives were presumed to be in the ascendant, and in which bipartisanship was effectively defined as the effort to broker deals between the center-right and the hard right.

Barring an upset, however, that environment will come to an end on Nov. 6. This election is, as I said, shaping up as a referendum on our social insurance system, and it looks as if Mr. Obama will emerge with a clear mandate for preserving and extending that system. It would be a terrible mistake, both politically and for the nation’s future, for him to let himself be talked into snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

If it’s to be believed, (and there’s no reason not to believe it), that the reason non-voters don’t vote is because they don’t believe the politicians care about the issues that matter to them most.  The solution seems simple.  The easiest way to get them to the polls would be for politicians to start showing, through policy proposals and legislation, that they do care about those issues.

1 Comment »

  1. Eye on Williamson » TPA Blog Round Up (October 8, 2012) said,

    October 8, 2012 at 10:44 am

    [...] WCNews at Eye on Williamson shows us that one of the problems with our elections is who doesn’t show up to vote, Getting non-voters to the polls. [...]

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