Author: Frances Fox Piven

Frances Fox Piven is an American professor of political science and sociology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, where she has taught since 1982

The Changing Faces of Poverty and Inequality: How We Once Came to Fight a War on Poverty

The fifty-year anniversary of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty has sparked a new round of right-wing attacks on social policies for the poor. The arguments are familiar. Ronald Reagan set the tone with the quip “we fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.” Now it was people like Paul Ryan who led the chorus, loudly claiming that despite trillions of dollars spent, and hundreds of programs, 47 million Americans remained poor.

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How We Once Came to Fight a War on Poverty


The fifty-year anniversary of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty has sparked a new round of right-wing attacks on social policies for the poor. The arguments are familiar. Ronald Reagan set the tone with the quip, “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.” Now it was people like Paul Ryan who led the chorus, loudly claiming that despite trillions of dollars spent, and hundreds of programs, forty-seven million Americans remained poor. The problem, according to these critics, is that we relied on government, especially the federal government, to fight the war. What we should have done, then, and should do now, is slash taxes and roll back regulations so as to free business to solve the problem by expanding employment. Or government should pay businesses to run poverty programs. Ryan points approvingly, for example, to an initiative of Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, to make government grants available to employers to develop job-training programs. These are not new ideas, and they are not mere rhetoric either. In fact, an increasing number of government functions, including welfare and welfare-to-work programs, prisons, and public schools, have been contracted out to for-profit agencies on the grounds that where government inevitably fails, business can get the job done.

It is not just conservatives who bash the war on poverty. Many commentators on the left are not ready to celebrate the anniversary either. Not only is poverty still with us and, in fact, growing, but a good number of left critics think War on Poverty programs were at least partly to blame. Too much of the war was directed to trying to change the people who were poor, teaching or preaching to them to change their attitudes and behaviors regarding work and school and childbearing. Too little was directed toward the economic conditions these people faced, especially unemployment and low wages.

There is a measure of truth in this last point. Inevitably, much of what was done was shaped by what had been done before, by social workers or educators or job trainers, for example. Nevertheless, I think the war on poverty deserves more appreciation. We need to separate the effects of the poverty programs from the impact of the detrimental changes in the economy associated with the hyper-capitalism we call neoliberalism. To be sure, the economic changes of the past few decades were influenced by government policies, including regulatory, trade, and tax policies. But the programs of the War on Poverty were not the culprits. And once we parse the programs’ effects, it becomes clear that the war on poverty actually scored big gains for the poor, especially for poor children and the elderly. Moreover, the programs helped shrink racial disparities in poverty.

The war on poverty scored big gains for the poor [and] helped shrink racial disparities in poverty.

When Paul Ryan says millions of Americans are still poor, he is correct. He might have added that the United States has proportionally more poor people than any other rich nation. But the programs worked to offset the increases in economic hardship created by the falling wages and more precarious employment of a growing proportion of working people. And this large trend reflected the decline of unions, deindustrialization, the growth of low-wage and contingent service-sector employment, and the increasing aggressiveness of employers in their race to the bottom. The initiatives of the war on poverty offset some of the impact of these developments. Without the war, things would be much worse for many millions of people.

Moreover, when War on Poverty programs were inaugurated in the early 1960s, the benefits they provided were funded by a relatively progressive tax system. And the urban protests to which the war was a response, but which it also encouraged, prodded other programs (like Aid to Families with Dependent Children) to become more responsive and more lawful. Those benefits were also largely funded by relatively progressive federal taxes. So even though the war provoked animosity from white working people, they were not bearing the main brunt of the cost. By contrast, the contemporary Earned Income Tax Credit program helps to bolster the income of low-wage workers with government subsidies. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2013, a family of four with a household wage income of $25,000 would be entitled to a tax credit of $4,918. But unlike the 1960s when social programs were funded by a steeply progressive tax system—the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent—the revenues that subsidize low-wage earners now come mainly from the taxes paid by working- and middle-class people.1

Unlike the 1960s, when programs were funded by a progressive tax system, the revenues that subsidize low-wage earners now come mainly from taxes paid by working- and middle-class people.

So as government policies go, the war on poverty was overall a good war. At this moment, surrounded as we are by timid Democrats and rapacious or simply lunatic Republicans, we should try to stretch our memories and understand how the American government was made to take such initiatives. Why did Lyndon Baines Johnson, a president whose political acumen and chicanery were legendary, come to make the War on Poverty the main theme of his 1964 State of the Union address? And how was it that he then succeeded in pushing Congress to enact a series of policies that reduced poverty in the United States and did so with programs for which the affluent paid?

Black Migration Alters the Electoral Landscape

Policies are not simply the contrivances of policy wonks. They are the outcome of politics, and underlying the war on poverty were severe disturbances in urban and national politics with which a Democratic federal regime tried to cope. These disturbances, in turn, reflected big economic and demographic changes that originated in the mechanization of southern agriculture and the consequent displacement and immiseration of millions of blacks who had been sharecroppers, tenant farmers, or day laborers. Many made their way to the big cities of the north, where earlier black migrants had established small ghetto communities.

Now the ghettos were bulging with newcomers. In 1910, 75 percent of African-Americans lived in rural areas, and 90 percent lived in the South. By the mid-1960s, three-quarters lived in cities, and half were outside the South.2 These economic and demographic shifts were to have large consequences for American politics, destabilizing electoral alignments and also creating the conditions that nourished the black emancipatory movements of the 1960s.

The ensuing problems for the Democratic Party were as serious as they were because the party’s electoral success depended on a peculiar and potentially fragile North-South voter coalition. The South had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War, but the Democrats became a reigning majority only when the Great Depression combined with New Deal appeals to draw the northern urban working class into Democratic ranks. During the Depression, the political oligarchs of the still feudal South had welcomed the assistance that New Deal programs provided to their hard-hit region. But they were also wary of the possibility of federal interference with their caste-based labor system. For some years, national Democratic leaders worked to assuage their worries and keep the coalition together. That meant a tacit agreement to avoid initiatives that interfered with racial arrangements in the South, and especially to avoid initiatives that would interfere with the caste-based labor system. FDR refused to support anti-lynching legislation, and important New Deal labor initiatives exempted agricultural and domestic workers, the main black occupations in the South.

The migration of millions of blacks to the cities of the North where they became voters created serious strains both within the Northern wing of the Democratic coalition and then between the Northern and Southern wings. Historically, the big city Democratic parties had incorporated waves of immigrant newcomers by forming what are called patron–client relations with the leaders of new ethnic communities. Modest amounts of municipal patronage, much of it symbolic, were extended to the leaders of the new communities who, in turn, were tasked with producing votes for the usually Democratic ticket. But this time, the process was not working well.

One reason was that intense conflict in the South generated by civil rights protests was not only leading to defections from the Democratic ranks by white Southerners but also producing signs of instability among black voters in the Northern cities. Adlai Stevenson, the unsuccessful Democratic contender for the presidency in 1956, had tried to placate the white South by remaining vaguely noncommittal on civil rights. He was punished by a sharp drop in support among black voters in the North, who opted to stay away from the polls in large numbers. Local Democratic regimes in the cities were not helping either, simply because mayors tied to older white ethnic constituencies failed to reach out to the newcomers. To make matters worse, racial frictions in the cities grew as the enlarging black populations strained against ghetto boundaries and spilled over into white schools.

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he showed a keen awareness of the need to win black votes. He took a rhetorically strong stand on civil rights where Stevenson had waffled. But to act on his platform was to ensure further defections in the South. Other ways to strengthen black allegiance in the North were needed.

A War for Black Political Incorporation

Standing in the way of such allegiance was the faltering process of political incorporation of black newcomers to the cities. The solution was the inauguration of the series of programs targeted at the “inner city,” which became known as the Great Society. While each of the initiatives carried a different label (labels intended to soften conflict since they named problems everyone could agree upon), in the streets of the ghettos where the programs were implemented, they looked very much the same because they were designed to solve the same problem of the political incorporation of blacks in the face of local resistance.

[The programs of the Great Society] were designed to solve the problem of the political incorporation of blacks in the face of local resistance.

The signature program was the Economic Opportunity Act known as the War on Poverty, launched in 1964. And the centerpiece of the Economic Opportunity Act was known as “community action.” But the distinctive features of the War on Poverty were evident in a series of initiatives beginning in 1961 with the passage of the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act. In 1963, the Community Mental Health Act authorized more funds for similar programs. Then in 1964, under Johnson, the much larger Economic Opportunity Act. And in 1966, the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act was passed.

Each program singled out ghetto neighborhoods, each provided a basket of diverse services, each channeled some part of its funds to new organizations in the ghettos, circumventing not only state agencies but also the municipal regimes that had resisted incorporating blacks, and each functioned in ways that looked remarkably similar to the traditional political machine. Staff helped residents get jobs or deal with recalcitrant municipal agencies whose ties to older white constituencies made them reluctant to provide services to the ghettos. Local people were hired as community workers, and under the rubric of “community participation,” the programs drew in more people from the neighborhoods. And citywide coordinating bodies were established that generated more jobs, and more opportunities for voice, for the black newcomers whom municipal regimes had ignored.

Incorporation versus Cooptation

I said this was an effort at political incorporation. Or was it political cooptation? After all, the black voter instabilities that prompted JFK’s attention to the inner city were inspired by the demands of the Southern civil rights movement. But once in office, Kennedy stalled, fearing defections in the Southern wing of the party. Later, when escalating civil rights protests did force Kennedy, and then Johnson, to champion the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Southern support crumbled. In the meantime, however, Kennedy tried to hold black voters with social policy initiatives in the Northern cities where the black vote was concentrated. But even as the programs and the rhetoric of the Great Society took shape, the Black Freedom Movement arrived in the North, and protests erupted in the cities over schools, jobs, welfare, housing, and policing.

[The] rising black protest movement became intertwined with policies intended to incorporate or coopt black inner-city communities.

Inevitably, this rising black protest movement became intertwined with policies intended to incorporate or coopt black inner-city communities. Indeed, in many instances, the movement and the programs became indistinguishable. How could it have been otherwise? The strategy of incorporation relied on providing resources and the rhetorical encouragement of “maximum feasible participation” to the inner city.

The local storefronts established by the new programs, along with the community workers, social workers, lawyers, and Vista volunteers the programs hired, were influenced and overtaken by the rising aspirations and activism of the movement. The new programs promised independence from established city regimes and a measure of influence for the poor. Or as Robert Kennedy told a House committee in 1964, “The institutions which affect the poor [are] education, welfare, recreation, business, and labor . . . The community action programs must basically change these organizations by building into the programs real representation for the poor.” It was not easy to reverse such promises in the face of rising protests in the inner cities. In other words, community action was a lever to prod the big institutions of the American welfare state, many of them controlled by local government, to respond to the minority poor.

I was there, so to speak, and watched the growth of the protest movement first from the perch of Mobilization for Youth (MFY), an early Lower East Side poverty program, and then later from my role in the national welfare rights movement. These were heady times. On the Lower East Side, the streets throbbed with crowds of excited people, especially in the summer months. And the local war on poverty was part of the rush. In August 1963, MFY rented an entire train so neighborhood residents could join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, MFY’s neighborhood service centers (staffed by social workers, lawyers, and local residents) were flooded with people who suddenly had the confidence to ask for help dealing with indifferent landlords, school suspensions, unpaid grocery bills, or a resistant welfare department. The storefront centers multiplied, and other MFY facilities provided meeting and mimeograph machines to local groups. MFY lawyers passed out cards in the neighborhood encouraging local people to call on their services if they had trouble with welfare or the police or the landlord. And as they gained experience, MFY staff became more aggressive, cajoling and threatening legal action on behalf of the people they were helping. Service centers like these were established in about a thousand communities across the country, and in a short time, they became the locus not only for help with individual grievances but also for collective action in rent strikes and welfare rights campaigns.

Neighborhood service centers were flooded with people who suddenly had the confidence to ask for help dealing with indifferent landlords, school suspensions, unpaid grocery bills, or a resistant welfare department.

Community action programs also helped launch blacks into city politics. If, at first, the programs provided resources and encouragement for activists, in the longer run, these activists became executives of community action or model cities programs, vying for position and patronage in big city politics. And in some places, the Great Society programs became the base for blacks seeking local electoral office. In Newark, for example, Kenneth Gibson, who had been the vice president of the local community action program, won the mayoralty. In Boston, the model cities director claimed credit for electing a city councilman. In Durham, North Carolina the community action agency joined with liberals in a successful takeover of the county Democratic Party.

Community action programs helped launch blacks into city politics.

I have already said that War on Poverty programs and their ramified effects had a big impact on poverty. They also should be deemed a success as a strategy of incorporation or cooptation. Black voters became reliable Democrats. But to dismiss the war as mere cooptation is too simple by far. The policy gains were, in effect, the price paid by a Democratic regime for the cooptation of blacks. Moreover, eventually, as the processes of incorporation continued, the price came to include substantial minority employment in the public sector as well.

We should recover our own memory of the War on Poverty and not allow it to be defined and buried by right-wing politicians. Just think, not very long ago, the machinations of elected politicians converged with a great freedom movement from the bottom to produce extraordinary feats of political creativity and transformation.

Today, many of the poor are the low-wage and insecure workers of the so-called precariat. The lesson for them and their advocates of the War on Poverty is that important gains are unlikely to result from electoral politics alone. In the 1960s, it was the rising of a people in a disorderly and even riotous movement, at a time when Democratic political leaders were electorally vulnerable, that led to an expansion of American democracy and a reduction in poverty. It could happen again.

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The Other Campaign: Who Gets to Vote?

As unions gear up for the election of 2012, they should take a lesson from the electoral contests of 2008 and 2010. These elections were won by strategic moves to reshape the electorate as much as, or more than, by the usual approaches to campaigning. At the highest levels of the political parties, the focus continues to be not only on persuading voters, but on who gets to vote.

The remarkable 2008 triumph of Barack Obama was the result of a surge into the electorate of youth, people of color, and the poor, many of them voting for the first time. In fact, first-time voters may have determined the outcome. Exit polls found that approximately ten million new voters (68.7 percent of all new voters) cast their ballots for Obama, quite possibly exceeding his margin of victory over  John McCain by as many as one million votes.1

Turnout among new voters in 2008 reflected the work of non-partisan organizations to increase voter registration among low-income, people-of-color, and youth constituencies,2 as well as the targeting and mobilization efforts of the Obama campaign.3 As a result, the percentage of people-of-color and low-income groups voting for the first time expanded. In 2004, 17 percent of all black voters told survey researchers they were voting for the first time; in 2008, that number was 19 percent. This represents an estimated increase of about six hundred thousand more first-time black voters in 2008 compared to 2004, or about 40 percent of the increase in the overall number of first-time voters. Even more impressive, among Latinos, some 28 percent voted for the first time in 2008, compared to 22 percent who said they were voting for the first time four years earlier.4

But the most significant (and encouraging) change in the “first-time” voter group occurred along class lines. First-time voters among the lowest income group, those with annual family income of $15,000 a year or less,5 nearly doubled their proportion among all voters in this income category, from 18 percent in 2004 to 34 percent in 2008. Among the least educated group, those with a high school diploma or less, first-time voters also increased their relative share, from 18 percent in 2004 to 22 percent in 2008, with most of the expansion occurring among those lacking a high school diploma.

No other income or education groups among first-time voters showed these rates of change in their patterns of electoral participation. The story of the constituencies that turned out to vote in such unusually large numbers in 2008 (and what they expect from government) was mostly missed in the popular discussion of that historic election. It was not missed, however, by Obama’s opponents in the Republican Party. Big victories in statewide elections in 2010 gave the GOP new opportunities for changing electoral rules in ways that burden the most vulnerable of voters who, the GOP surmises, won’t vote for them. The parties have long competed by manipulating electoral rules. Since 2000, with the two major parties so evenly matched at the national level, the GOP has waged a coordinated fight at the state level for political supremacy by voter suppression. The Tea Party victories of 2010, which consolidated the GOP’s unified control of government in twenty states (twenty-one now if we include Virginia in 2011), have resulted in an onslaught of legislation making it harder to register or to vote. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the National Conference of State Legislatures, in 2011 at least thirty-four states introduced legislation mandating that voters show photo identification to vote, with seven states passing these laws. At the time, only two states already had such laws on the books. Alabama, Kansas, and Tennessee joined Arizona and Georgia to pass laws requiring proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, to register to vote. At least thirteen states introduced legislation attacking rules designed to facilitate registration and voting like election-day and same-day registration and early voting.6 In Florida, where about a third of all voters casting ballots on the Sunday before Election Day in 2008 were black, and a quarter Latino, the Republican legislature and newly-elected Tea Party-backed governor eliminated early voting on that particular Sunday, reducing the early voting period from fourteen to eight days. The same law, HB 1355, prohibits address changes at the polls and also restricts third-party voter registration drives in ways that will surely dampen efforts to reach youth, people of color, and low-income earners.

Add to this the impact of felony disenfranchisement laws, which increased with the skyrocketing imprisonment rates of black and Latino men. As a result, 2.3 million incarcerated Americans are currently stripped of voting rights, as are another nearly five million people on parole or probation, most of them also poor black and Latino men.7 Moreover, ex-felons are sure to remain poor because American prisons—which deny inmates rehabilitation, strip them of work and educational opportunities, and scar them with violence—are poverty-producing machines. In so many cases, ex-felons return to impoverished communities where they are subjected to the tangle of obstacles and bureaucratic rules that reduce voting among the poor. The damaging impact of incarceration on voting rights stems not only from felony disenfranchisement laws but also from the malapportionment that results when district representation is determined by including a population that cannot vote. This practice is a modern-day reenactment of the three-fifths clause of the U.S. Constitution (abrogated by the Civil War Amendments) that counted three-fifths of a state’s slave population for apportioning representation in Congress, while denying slaves the vote.

Beyond specific laws and practices, there is a deep institutional logic in the U.S. two party, winner-take-all system which continually multiplies techniques for suppressing the vote. The winner in a two-party plurality system needs only one vote more than the loser to win it all, which means that the smaller the margin between the two candidates, the greater the strategic incentive for the loser to try to shift just enough votes to win, sometimes by any means necessary. Thus, party competition in a winner-take-all two-party system creates strong incentives for one side to suppress the votes on the other side, especially when electoral contests are close. In a residence-based electoral system in which citizens vote based on where they live, racial residential segregation also facilitates racial voter suppression efforts. Since partisanship and voting are racially polarized in the U.S., residential segregation makes it easy to find Democratic voters in black and Latino neighborhoods.

The pride that Americans take in our standing as the world exemplar of democracy is rooted in the right to vote. Or as V. O. Key, the eminent political scientist, said more than half a century ago, “The electorate occupies, at least in the mystique of [democratic] orders, the position of the principal organ of governance.”Consistently, the steady expansion of the right to vote is at the center of the celebration story of American democracy. The story gains traction from the history of constitutional amendments which extended voting rights first to African-Americans after the Civil War, then (in the twentieth century) to women, and finally to eighteen-year-olds. Political scientists generally accept the story. Indeed, E. E. Schattschneider, also an eminent political scientist, advanced the proposition that an expanding electorate was rooted in the logic of competitive parties. “Once party organization becomes active in the electorate, a vast field for extension and intensification of effort is opened up, the extension of the franchise to new social classes, for example. The natural history of the parties is a story of continuous expansion and intensification…to a larger and larger electorate.”9

This story has occasionally been correct, but it is more often false. For one thing, the electoral  universe described by constitutional voting rights has always been much larger than the actual voting population, and the discrepancy between legal rights and actual rights is much larger in the U.S. than in other comparable democracies. For another, the actual electorate substantially underrepresents marginal groups: young people, people of color, and poor people. So chattschneider’s faith that competitive parties are propelled to enlarge voter participation is misplaced.

In fact, a closer look at the intricacies of American electoral practices shows that even while formal rights were being extended, the very groups who were the ostensible beneficiaries were being disenfranchised, not by constitutional proclamation, but by myriad procedural changes in the rules and practices of electoral machinery. The classic example is the post-Civil War South, where changes in law and the administration of elections actually nullified the Fifteenth Amendment (granting the freedmen the right to vote). The toolkit of disenfranchising tactics pioneered in the South in the nineteenth century came to be widely used everywhere in the United States, and these tactics are being deployed again as the 2012 election approaches.

Disenfranchising works by elaborating and enforcing bureaucratic rules that make registration and balloting more difficult and intimidating. This inevitably has a larger effect on poorer and less educated people who are also the natural targets of disenfranchising tactics by the right. One can get a sense of the class and electoral dynamics that underlie what might otherwise appear simply to be bureaucratic intransigence and incompetence by looking at the revealing history of a recent effort to extend voting rights to the poor—the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993.

The legislation is popularly known as the “Motor Voter” law because one of its provisions makes it possible to register to vote in the course of getting or renewing a driver’s license. Implementation of this part of the law went relatively smoothly. But another part of the reform motivated the poverty and civil rights groups that pushed for it. Agencies that provided services to the poor or the disabled would be required to offer their clients the opportunity to register to vote, and also to provide them with help in completing the registration application. The hope was that this “agency-based” registration system would circumvent age-old procedural hurdles maintained by local election officials. The legislation was not championed by either political party: Democrats were lukewarm, and the opposition from Republicans was strident and persistent. Congressional opposition first forced the bill’s advocates to agree to drop unemployment agencies from the registration service requirement, and to weaken the mandate for registration in public assistance agencies, and then (later) to agree to drop a provision for election-day registration. Thus crippled, but not irrelevant, the bill passed.

The requirements for agency-based registration, however, were poorly implemented and not enforced by the Justice Department.10 Some states ignore the annual reporting requirements in the law, and other states are content simply to report “0” registrations at the various agencies covered by the law. Only recently—prompted by lawsuits initiated by voting rights advocates Project Vote, Demos, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law—have a handful of states actually stepped up implementation efforts. The results are suggestive of what might have been. In Missouri, for example, registrations collected at public assistance agencies had fallen to fewer than  eight thousand applications a year by 2005 and 2006. A decade earlier, the state was a national leader in the implementation of the NVRA’s agency-based registration requirements, collecting some 143,000 applications from public assistance recipients in the first two years of the NVRA. In 2008, advocates filed a lawsuit against the state alleging violations of the NVRA, and a federal judge agreed, ordering the state to immediately comply with the law. Within six weeks, more than twenty-six thousand Missourians registered at public assistance agencies. Missouri has continued to produce between eight thousand and eighteen thousand voter registration applications collected at public assistance offices per month.11

During the fight to pass the NVRA, organized labor was nominally supportive, but the unions of workers in the public agencies covered by the Act remained aloof from actual implementation efforts, unwilling to brook the hostility that could be aroused among already resentful workers who were being asked to do more work. Only something like a movement-style rallying of their members by the unions could have mobilized these workers to champion the voting rights of the poor. Maybe the current moment will be different.

A deep recession, growing numbers of workers falling into poverty, mounting attacks on the public sector (and especially public sector workers), along with growing evidence of corruption and thievery at the very top—all this has prompted enthusiasm for movement politics instead of electoral politics. We, too, are enthused by the signs of a growing movement associated with Occupy Wall Street.

But the election of 2012 will go forward in any case—it will grip most Americans and the unions will, as usual, pour money and effort into the campaign. Maybe their electoral efforts would be more effective if unions like CWA, AFSCME, and the SEIU took the initiative in a campaign to enforce a law that is already on the books, registering the clients of the poor-serving agencies of America.

We could even call it a “work-to-rule” campaign. We could try to shape outcomes by taking advantage of existing laws to include huge swaths of the American working class, like the ten million adults who now use the food stamp program. Why not try to match, or exceed, right-wing efforts to shape election outcomes by working to construct a more inclusive electorate?



1. The first three paragraphs are drawn
from Lorraine C. Minnite, First-Time Voters
in the 2008 Election (Washington, D.C.:
Project Vote, April 2011), available at www.
pdf. According to the officially certified
results of the 2008 election, Barack
Obama’s margin of victory over John
McCain was 9,550,176 votes. See Statistics
of the Presidential and Congressional Election
of November 4, 2008 (compiled by
Lorraine C. Miller, Clerk of the House of
Representatives, July 10, 2009), available
electionInfo/2008election.pdf. Because
exit polls are samples of the electorate,
sampling error must be taken into
account, which means that the estimate
of the number of ballots cast for Obama
by first-time voters falls within a range of
possible estimates of at least two to four
percentage points higher or lower than
10.5 million ballots.
2. An independent analysis of nonpartisan
voter registration drives conducted
in 2007 and 2008 found that there
were 31,870,856 new registrants appearing
on the voter rolls between January 1,
2007 and the end of 2008; one out of
every eight of these newly registered voters
was signed up through the efforts of
about thirty non-partisan organizations.
Ethan Roeder, “Voter Registration Analysis
‘08: Evaluating Independent Voter Registration
Efforts from the 2008 Election
Cycle” (unpublished report, New Organizing
Institute, Washington, D.C., December
10, 2009).
3. Larry J. Sabato, ed., The Year of
Obama: How Barack Obama Won the
White House (New York: Longman, 2009).
4. The certified vote count in 2004 was
122,349,480. See Statistics of the Presidential
and Congressional Election of November
2, 2004 (compiled by Jeff Trandahl ,
Clerk of the House of Representatives,
June 7, 2005), available at http://clerk.
5. National median income for a family
of four in 2009 was $62,363. See U.S. Census
Bureau, “2005-2009 5-Year Estimates,”
Table S1901, “Income in the Past 12
Months (in 2009 Inflation-Adjusted Dollars),”
ds_name=ACS_2009_5YR_G00_ (accessed
March 20, 2011).
6. See Wendy R. Weiser and Lawrence
Norden, Voting Law Changes in 2012
(New York: Brennan Center for Justice,
2011), available at www.brennancenter.
in_2012; and the NCSL’s website on
voter identification requirements, www.
(accessed January 5, 2012).
7. Paul Guerino, Paige M. Harrison, and
William J. Sabol, Prisoners in 2010 (U.S.
Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice
Statistics, December 2011), available at
8. V.O. Key, “A Theory of Critical Elections,”
Journal of Politics 17, no. 1 (February
1955): 3.
9. E. E. Schattschneider, Party Government
(New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston,
1942), 47.
10. See Douglas R. Hess and Scott
Novakowski, Unequal Access: Neglecting
the National Voter Registration Act, 1995-
2007 (Washington, D.C. and New York:
Project Vote and Demos, February 2008),
available at
11. Voter Registration Services at Public
Assistance Agencies (Washington, D.C.:
Project Vote, April 2010), available at www.