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October 09, 2005

Mystery of the Missing Voter

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

The key statistic from the post below is a striking one indeed. Shakespeare's Sister points out that in 2004, the national median income was $35,100, while the median income of the electorate was $55,300. In other words, poor people are voting at a much lower rate than rich people. Then she cites Cernig's view that "they don't vote simply because neither Republicans nor Republican-Lites have policies that address their concerns!" There's some truth in this claim, but a lot more error.

Democrats support a bunch of policies that directly benefit poor people -- in particular, raising the minimum wage and expanding the EITC. Republicans, by contrast, push for cuts in all sorts of antipoverty spending, from Social Security to Section 8 housing vouchers to Medicaid to home heating assistance. When you add superior Democratic economic management, this all makes a difference -- the poverty rate fell from 15.1% to 11.3% over Clinton's two terms, and rose each year in Bush's time. We certainly could offer a lot more than we're offering, and I think we absolutely ought to. But the fact that poor people aren't coming out at the same rate as the rich and voting for Democratic policies that are clearly better for them makes me suspicious of claims that larding on more genuinely helpful initiatives will be enough to turn out more poor voters. I wish I could regard increases in antipoverty spending as a means to win elections, but barring some really special stuff (which I'll describe further down) I'll have to regard them merely as an end in themselves.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Democrats don't control the government, and have controlled it for only 2 years of the last 24. If we actually could pass some ambitious antipoverty policies like free health care for kids, we could make it immediately obvious to poor people that the Democrats are their friends. (Make no mistake, we tried real hard in our two years, with a plan for universal health care. And at midterm elections, we were completely crushed. O poor huddled masses, where were you?) When you're not in power, you just have to argue that your policies will be better. And then you're subject to the difficulties Nick points out:

They look at Kerry talking about his health care plan, they look at Bush talking about his health care plan, and in the rush of a few 90 minute debates, it can be very hard to tell the difference. So, they look at the personal qualities of the candidates, with the idea that those personal qualities will somehow reflect the behavior of the candidate once he's in office. Some voters are in fact looking at the candidate's views on abortion and gay marriage in that way.

I see two things we can do about this. First, we can offer antipoverty measures so bold and exciting that Republicans won't be able to offer an obfuscatory proposal with a similar name that can be confused with our awesome proposal. Given the awesome ability of Republicans to obfuscate and the total inability of the media to cut through their obfuscation, this is going to be a tall order. I really don't know how the obfuscation games will play out -- if we offer a plan that funds health care for all children, and the Republicans offer tax deductions for childrens' health care, will poor people know that our plan helps them a lot while the Republican plan does nothing for them? I hope so, because otherwise it's hard to see what we can do.

The second thing is to make sure we absolutely blow away the Republicans in the "personal qualities of the candidates" game. If we want to show that we are the party that will help poor people, it'd be great to have a candidate whose public persona and media profile are fundamentally associated with helping the poor. We need to nominate someone whose background and mannerisms don't set him apart from the voters we're trying to attract. The ability to give powerful speeches about income inequality would help too. Of course, the candidate should actually have a good set of policy proposals to deal with the issues -- some of which have a shot at overcoming obfuscatory Republican counterproposals. Where, o where, can we find such a candidate?

October 9, 2005 in Electoral Politics | Permalink


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Hi Neil,

I guess you like Edwards then. To be honest, so do I - he has some good qualities. I wonder whether he is truly seasoned enough to stand on his own though. In the "public persona" stakes I think he is still a bit fresh-faced.

As to your assertion that my claim has "some truth...but a lot more error" I think you are right that Dem policies have to radically differ from Republican ones on issues such as healthcare and employment before they will catch the attention of the 30% of or so - mostly young, poor or both - who don't vote at present.

As a commenter at Shakespeare's Sister recently pointed out, even a $1 co-payment is unaffordable to many. Going part of the way to helping the truly poor is almost the same as going no part of the way at all.

For a look at what it is to be below the poverty threshold in the USA today try John Scalzi's excellent post. Its a real eye-opener for those who have never been there and should be required reading for every middle-class liberal and definitely for the Democrat leadership. Personally, I hit 32 of the original 62 point list and count myself fortunate indeed.

I refer you to my comments on Ezra's original post further down the page - and would ask liberals if they have already forgoitten the biggest lesson of Katrina, that if those in poverty are not offered transport they will be left behind.

Liberals should be running a major campaign to not only increase voter registration among the poor and the young but also to offer these transportless sections of the liberal constituency a way of getting to the polls. Republicans scramble to get the elderly to the poills because they know the majority of those over 65 vote conservative. Liberals should likewise be arranging transport for young and poor voters. That would help hugely towards getting out that particular vote.

Regards, Cernig

Posted by: Cernig | Oct 9, 2005 11:13:05 AM

I think there might be some statistical bias here. I don't think it's necessarily the "rich" who are voting, but that it's the "older people". Typically young people vote in very low numbers, and people tend to make more money as they get older. So the idea that 40-60 year old working people who likely vote in higher numbers than 20-30 year olds could account for some of that statistical difference. Perhaps not all, but some of it.

Posted by: Brad Warbiany | Oct 9, 2005 12:33:21 PM

My apologies, here is the link to Sclazi's post:


Regards, C

Posted by: Cernig | Oct 9, 2005 3:34:30 PM

Wow, Cernig... that's like the Nickel and Dimed of blog posts. Incredible stuff.

I'm guessing that the best way to deal with some of these election-related issues (transportation to the polls, etc.) is on the local level. I'd really like to see some kind of push by Democrats to identify and win the key local races that will help us make voting easier for poor folks.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 9, 2005 5:15:37 PM

Good ideas, worth doing as ends in themselves, but don't fool yourself into thinking they'll get poor people to vote (see my comment to the next post).

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Oct 9, 2005 5:37:44 PM

Perhaps one reason that poor folk don't vote as much as rich folk is that they are overworked, exhausted, and just don't have the time to vote. To counter that, I suggest:

1) Make election day a holiday: Informally, declare election day a "buy nothing day" and a "don't go to work day" for those who have the ability to choose when they want to work and buy things. Follow up with legislation, either making election day a federal holiday or moving it to a day that people are often off duty (weekends or an existing holiday, such as veterans day)

2) Make sure that people can get to the polls. Pay the bus fare for everyone on election day (banks do it, why can't the Dems or other non-partisan groups?). Another option is to rent passenger vans and set up local shuttle services in areas that need it.

3) Provide some sort of babysitting and food so that people can go vote rather than prepare dinner.

I know that a lot of this is being done, and there's only so much that "outsiders" can do--the poor communities themselves will need to provide a lot of the volunteers. Wealtheir activists can only provide a bit of manpower and money.

I think it is established that when the poor vote, they vote for the Dems.

BTW, there is reason to believe that increases in the Minimum Wage put some poor people out of work. Likewise, as long as Social Security and Medicare are paid out of (regressive) payroll taxes, I don't think we can really consider them to be benefits for the poor.

Posted by: Adam | Oct 9, 2005 6:49:09 PM

I agree with 1, I know Democrats are always trying to do 2, and I'd like to see more effort put into something like 3.

Empirical studies of the minimum wage have shown that there isn't any strong link between higher minimum wages and higher unemployment. This is because labor demand is inelastic. You might be interested in reading this piece by minimum wage opponent Steven Landsburg:

In fact, the power of the minimum wage to kill jobs has been greatly overestimated. Nowadays, most labor economists will tell you that that minimum wages have at most a tiny impact on employment.

Twenty years ago, they'd have told you otherwise. Back then, dozens of published studies concluded that minimum wages had put a lot of people (especially teenagers, blacks, and women) out of work. As the studies continued to pile up, you might think we'd have grown more confident about their common conclusion. Instead, the opposite happened. Even though the studies were all in agreement, they managed to undercut each other.

While SS and Medicare are funded by payroll taxes, the amount poor people get out exceeds the amount they pay in.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 9, 2005 7:26:12 PM

This is a bit off topic, butt...

A failure to detect a phenomenon does not mean that the phenomenon does not exist. This is especially true for sciences like economics where controlled experiments are impossible and it becomes very difficult to disentangle the impact various factors.

When I say "there are reasons to believe", I mean both that there is some emperical evidence, and that there is some theoretical basis for believing this. What is the theoretical basis for believing that increasing the MW will NOT increase unemployment? I can dream up an explanation or two, but I've never gotten any such explanation from a proponent of minimum wage increases.

Posted by: Adam | Oct 10, 2005 7:38:38 AM

Hi Neil,

Ezra pointed out on another post that Dems do in fact do a lot of good work on urban GOTV work. The trouble is its not enough. Katrina showed the depth of the problem - simply, so many poorer people have limited transport access. From where I live (urban setting in Texas), its a total of four buses, 3 hours and 2 dollars to the nearest polling place. Theres a huge - I mean really massive- number of people who have just finished a min. wage 8 hour shift who cannot afford 2 bucks (honestly, read that post on being poor) and dont have 3 hours spare. Im sure Ezra will confirm that the relative few who go to the polls through urbam GOTV at present overwhelmingly vote Dem. Imagine what a really major effort could accomplish. Trouble is, I dont see the Demlicans doing it - they dont see the Left or the poor as core constituency.

Rebecca - this has never been tried on the scale it would need so you cannot say it would not work. The primary reasons for low voter activity in the youngest and the poorest portions of society have already been identified by political scientists - see Piven and Cloward for example.

America’s registration system, which places the burden of registration on the individual rather than, as in Europe, on officials, depresses turnout.

Once the poor and minorities were discouraged from voting, politicians no longer had to address their concerns. It became a vicious circle-once politicians wouldn't speak to their needs, these groups became even less interested in politics.

Legal barriers to voter registration have prevented the formation of a class-based political system in the United States. If America had mandatory registration, two of three nonvoters would be Democrat, and Carter would have beaten Reagan in 1980. Politicians do not respond to profound social, labor, and economic issues buried in the unarticulate half of the electorate.

Regards, Cernig

Posted by: Cernig | Oct 10, 2005 12:24:18 PM

Adam, the theoretical explanation is labor market inelasticity. Think about toilet paper -- if toilet paper prices doubled, would you buy half as much toilet paper? Probably not. This is because toilet paper demand is inelastic. To corporations in a number of industries (though certainly not all), minimum-wage labor demand is similarly inelastic. There are also some issues regarding monopsonies in the labor market that you might want to look at.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 10, 2005 2:50:42 PM

Cernig, urban GOTV was actually a huge part of what Dem-aligned groups like ACT were trying to do in Ohio in 2004. Have you ever volunteered for a campaign in the final weeks, by the way? In every campaign I've ever volunteered for, most volunteers are spending most of their time in the last week or so calling up every low-income voter in our targeted urban precincts and asking whether they (1) know where their polling places are and (2) need a ride to the polls. If we're not reaching enough low-income voters, it's because we don't have enough volunteers or enough cars or enough phones. Democrats understand perfectly well the importance of urban GOTV -- it's just that there are a lot more poor people than phones and we can't get them all.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 10, 2005 2:56:08 PM

Zactly, Neil. But imagine what a really huge effort could do.

One of the most useful things liberal bloggers could do for 2006 and 2008 is fundraise to back a truly massive GOTV.

As for actual campaigns, I'm an ex-pat Scot living in the US but always happy to give my time for liberal/left campaigns. My own experience is back in the UK where things are the same but different in that the demographic we are talking about actually have a powerful party or two to go vote for. The most powerful politician in the UK right now is the socialist in charge of the economy (Blair's a dead duck) who is in line to be the next Prime Minister and who was the main mind behind the last two Labour campaigns. I am from a family that's had a couple of generations of Labour politicians now so I've been involved in campaigning since an early age. I see the curent US situation and see where the UK does it differently and think "if only the Dems would go talk to Brown's campaign team".

Regards, C

Posted by: Cernig | Oct 10, 2005 4:30:37 PM

From my limited experience/observance of a pooer district in the Northeast, I do no observe these situations where the poor can't pay the bus fare (or even the $1 co-payment as mentioned above) to go vote. Thats generally because I see these people with cell phones and designer jeans. Yes, that is very generalized and short sighted of me. But I can tell you one thing, you get a hispanic candidate on the ballot and they come out in droves.

Jimmy Smits for President!

Posted by: Adrock | Oct 10, 2005 5:14:33 PM

Neil, thanks for the monospony link. I can see that having a big effect in a lot of small towns with a single dominant employer.

There are two other explanations that I have thought of, but have never seen anyone else suggest them (or provide any evidence that they are true)

1) Poor bargaining position/lack of information: workers often don't know that better offers are available, and they need money NOW, so they don't shop around.

2) Firms have ideal sizes; reducing or increasing the number of workers creates inefficiencies that outweight any change in wages. This would create an inelastic demand for labor, as long as we are considering a fixed set of firms. However, if we assume that firms will open up or shut down in response to labor costs (and likely profit), then this would not reduce the elasticity of the labor supply-- at best, it would just delay the effects of increasing or decreasing the minimum wage.

P.S to Adrock: Many people have nice toys, but no cash on hand because they spend their money as soon as (or even before) they get it. Also, in many US cities, buses aren't convienent, even if they are affordable.

Posted by: Adam | Oct 10, 2005 10:24:41 PM

I will profit by adding "ideal sizes" to my vocabulary.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 11, 2005 2:16:17 AM

In my area (Maryland) polls are placed in schools, so schools are closed on election day. But workplaces are open. So if you have kids you have no daycare and you still have to go to work. How's that for giving people the time to vote?

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