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.

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