Monday, December 23, 2013

Why the poor should vote

Believe it or not, some candidates deserve to win elections, or rather, we deserve for them to win.  I've been trying to help a very strong advocate for the downtrodden win a state election in my district, so I am once again facing a hard political reality: the downtrodden don't vote.  It's a double-whammy.  Lower-income folks don't vote as much as upper-income folks, who also have more money to give.  But we still don't vote.  All the effort our side spends trying to limit political spending (although I agree we can never compete monetarily) would be much better spent turning out our people (where our true strength lies, in numbers), and everything that entails.  It means organizing, organizing, organizing, changing the laws to remove barriers to registering and voting, and organizing.

And here I have another bone to pick with some friends on the left. Some say it makes no difference to vote.  But if you're living on minimum wage, bub, and one side wants to raise it and the other side wants to get rid of it or keep it down, believe you me, it matters.

Everybody says Americans are the worst at showing up to vote.  Not true, actually.  The Swiss are worse, and sometimes so are Canadians.  In Brazil and Australia, you have to vote. It's the law.  (So it's not really a fair comparison.)  But does this make their result better?  I don't know.  Here's an interesting discussion of it, whether you agree with the conclusions or not.  (Check out the results about what voters don't know.  But, sorry, no, it doesn't mean you're smarter if you're not voting.  Just the opposite!)

I do know there are a lot of reasons Americans don't vote.  My two favorite sociologists ("You have favorite sociologists?") Frances Fox-Piven and Richard Cloward have written a few books about it and related effects (see Why Americans Don't Vote, Why Americans Still Don't Vote, and Poor Peoples' Movements).  Some of this has changed since Jim Crow ended and "Motor Voter" passed, but two facts remain: (1) Most people who are registered to vote actually do vote, and (2) There are still barriers to registering.

Felons still lose their right to vote, and it's not always easy to get it back.  In Mississippi the State Legislature has to pass a bill with your name on it.  Moving too close to an election can run you up against a requirement that you register so many days before, or need proof of address that you won't have in time (a bill, a driver license) or you could just be turned away because...

Piven and Cloward also write about voter "demobilization" that goes beyond this kind of thing.  By not addressing any issues the poor care about, for example, politicians know they will get fewer poor people interested in voting.  They also know that rich people like that.  (Gee, that's gotta be a tough one for most of 'em!)  But some people on the left read that as "it doesn't matter, because they're both against us."  This is what you find at the corner of Wrong and Clearly Wrong.

What P&C found is that -- to their surprise, I believe -- even though direct action is more effective than voting (and so organizing for direct action is more valuable than organizing for voting), direct action is more effective when higher numbers register and vote.  It's easy to see why.  Politicians are more worried about what people think when more of 'em are registered and turn up.

But totally missing this is not the only reason that many of my friends the leftists and hippies still insist that voting is just 'feeding the beast.'  They conclude, like one of them wrote down on paper recently, that the main reason people don't vote is because they "rightly" conclude that it's a "lose-lose proposition," -- which it clearly  isn't, for one thing, because of what I said above about minimum wage -- but also because that's just not how people look at it.  By far the most information (OK, let's just call it "input") on elections is from the national level, where people's vote has the least impact.  Especially if we're talking president, where the Electoral College rules.  But -- weirdly -- it's president that most people vote for!  On the other end, city elections in most places are the lowest of all when there's no federal or state election going on; these elections go to the side that turns up.

Back to my point: Step 1. Don't whine, organize.  Step 2. Demand change.  Step 3. Repeat.

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