After the presidential debate: How to close the voting gap among low-income people

After last night's presidential debate, voter turnout is top of mind for the Mitt Romney and President Obama campaigns. But their concerns fail to address our democracy's fundamental challenge: how to increase voter registration among low-income citizens and communities of color.

Joseph Kaczmarek/AP
President Obama is reflected in Mary Jackson's eyeglasses as she watches the first presidential debate Mitt Romney Oct. 3 at a restaurant in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia. Op-ed contributors Daniel Altschuler and Lindsey Hodel emphasize the role nonpartisan, nonprofit service providers play in helping to 'close the voting gap among low-income people' by 'registering and mobilizing their clients' to vote in November.

After what most observers saw as a Mitt Romney victory in last night’s first presidential debate, this election’s home stretch has clearly arrived. And analysts around the country have voter turnout on their mind. Most political number-crunchers are busy trying to gauge whether one party’s base is more enthusiastic, and whether these verbal sparring matches will convince undecided voters.

The answers to these questions may determine the November election results. But they fail to address the underlying turnout problem that is arguably the most fundamental challenge facing our democracy: how to increase political participation, particularly among low-income communities and communities of color.

At a time of troublingly low voter registration and turnout, our country needs policy innovation from states – particularly through laws and technology that make voting easier (e.g., online voter registration). But we also need grassroots innovation from community groups interested in engaging members of their communities. Our proposal: engage direct service providers – the nonprofit organizations that deliver services to vulnerable families in need, such as health clinics, food pantries, and housing organizations.

America’s turnout problem is two-pronged. In the 2008 presidential election, only 61.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, according to the United States Elections Project. Turnout is far lower among those of lower socio-economic status. Data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey reveals that eligible voters with less than a bachelors degree voted at just over 50 percent in 2008, while over 70 percent of their counterparts with at least a bachelors degree cast ballots.

Much of this low turnout reflects a registration deficit. Nationwide, millions of citizens are not registered to vote or need to update their registrations. Low-income citizens and people of color are least likely to be registered. Current Census data reveal that, since at least 1980, white Americans have been more likely to be registered than their African-American, Latino, and Asian-American counterparts.

These registration and turnout deficits have many causes, including education and income disparities, state restrictions on registration, felon disenfranchisement (laws regarding felons and voter registration vary by state), and voters’ inflexible work schedules. And, unfortunately, it leads to policy-making that is often skewed toward the interests of the wealthy and the white.

Sadly, our dominant political parties are not equipped to solve this problem. Given relatively scarce resources, candidates cannot knock on every door. So they slice and dice the electorate based on demographics, party affiliation, and voting history, and focus on those “prime voters” who cast ballots in virtually every election. This creates a vicious cycle: Campaigns rarely contact unregistered people or infrequent voters, who in turn remain less likely to vote.

For decades, non-profit organizing groups have filled the gap by conducting non-partisan registration drives at places like universities, libraries, and shopping centers, and then mobilizing these new registrants. This work has an impact, and it continues.

These initiatives, however, are under serious attack in many states, where conservative legislators have championed voter identification laws and restrictions on registration drives under the mantle of eradicating voter fraud. Despite the fact that virtually all voter fraud accusations are baseless – as documented by the Brennan Center for Justice – voter ID efforts continue apace, jeopardizing the franchise of low-income people and voters of color.

Moreover, even in states where no such laws have passed, such non-partisan voter registration campaigns face persistent resource shortages; there are not enough charitable dollars to support these efforts at sufficient scale. 

Some may see efforts to register low-income people and voters of color as beneficial to the Democratic Party. But most non-profit efforts, such as our organizations’, are strictly non-partisan – registering everyone, irrespective of party and never suggesting that anyone support a particular party or candidate. Moreover, in our national registration effort, the largest group of registrants chose to remain unaffiliated, and previous election data suggest that low-income people are far from monolithic in whom they support.

In short, Americans of all political persuasions should be concerned with this country’s voting deficit, and, in a difficult economy, need to identify new solutions to do more with less.

We have three words for them: social service agencies.

Nonprofit social service agencies are a type of private charitable organization – though many receive public funding. These groups provide essential services, including food, clothing, and counseling, to residents facing hardship. Through these programs, service providers develop trusted relationships with those who are least likely to be registered – those on the bottom end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

This makes them an enormous, and mostly untapped, partner for stimulating civic engagement. And in many ways, the nonprofit sector is also the only one left standing that is truly nonpartisan: Federal law prevents tax-exempt charities from endorsing or opposing candidates or political parties.

In an effort to help close the voting gap among low-income people, the Service Providers and Civic Engagement (SPaCE) Project was launched, a nine-state non-partisan effort to engage service providers in registering and mobilizing their clients before the November elections.

Approximately 70 service providers in states from Pennsylvania to Washington have already registered more than 8,000 people to vote. Among those already registered, project partners have gained 12,000 commitments to vote in the form of a signed pledge promising to cast a ballot.  And we plan to enlist thousands more before beginning Get Out the Vote efforts.

In New York, for instance, the Long Island Civic Engagement Table (LICET), a nonprofit initiative to increase civic participation, has worked with local service providers to register voters in waiting rooms, during the intake process, and at food pantries. LICET has registered roughly 1,000 local residents, in addition to the 3,000 voter registrations it has collected through traditional organizing methods.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Engaging service providers in coordinated civic engagement work will not solve all our nation’s voter turnout problems, but this grassroots innovation should become a part of the standard toolkit for increasing civic participation in America.

Daniel Altschuler is the coordinator of the Long Island Civic Engagement Table. Lindsey Hodel is the project director of the Service Providers and Civic Engagement Project. 

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