Who Votes in America and Why It Matters

August 10, 2016

I voted sticker on someones shirt

Voting Is The Foundation Of Our Country

The foundation of democracy is built up on the ability to vote in free and open elections. But what happens when the march to the polls looks like an assembly line of the same old parts, with white and wealthy voters outnumbering people of color, low-income individuals, and young people by landslide margins? The answer is the very un-American reality we’re currently seeing in this country.

Chew On This

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the non-Hispanic white share of the voting population was a whopping 73.7% in the 2012 presidential election. In addition, voters between the ages of 45 and 64 consistently outnumber voters in other age groups. In contrast, in 2012, 26 million eligible voters of color did not vote and, among eligible voters earning less than $50,000, 47 million did not vote.

No Vote? No Voice.

These mega-voids are what democracy experts refer to as “turnout gaps.” And here’s why turnout gaps are the pits: Because it’s the equivalent of silencing voices, allowing the opinions of a single dominant class to prevail over those non-voters whose views don’t make it into the policy-making process.

A Disturbing Phenomenon

Specific examples of the above can be seen between voters and non-voters on different aspects of the government’s role in the economy, where the gaps have come to illustrate deep class and racial divides. Sifting through data from the 2012 presidential election, this 2015 Demos study shows that affluent voters (those earning $150,000+) are far more likely to oppose government policies to help the middle class than low-income non-voters (those earning less than $30,000). Low-income non-voters, in contrast, were more likely to support bolstering aid to the poor, and a strong role for government in guaranteeing jobs and living standards.

This untidy unbalance has led to the phenomenon political scientists call trickle-up policy making. In other words, the policies that voters support form actual policy through their elected officials, while policies that non-voters support never gain traction.

The Fickle Trickle

So, how to fill the holes and redirect the trickle-up flow? More inclusive voting is the short answer. Unfortunately, fixes that would ensure voter access are hamstringed today by everything from gerrymandering—manipulating electoral constituency boundaries to favor one party or class—to the dilution of the Voting Rights Act, which has made registration for many voters increasingly difficult.

Millions Miss Out

Registration entanglements remain a key voter turnout nemesis. And requirements to register that rest on citizens, rather than on the government, have made it worse. Specifically, millions of people who would vote are unable to because of registration deadlines. Supporting data shows that nearly 10 million people did not vote in recent elections due to administrative hiccups. Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) would help remedy the situation, holding the government responsible for registering all eligible citizens, and thereby ensuring that anyone who wants to vote is given ample opportunity.

Let America Get Back To Doing What It Does Best

Inclusive voting measures such as AVR would also help shift public policy for the better, particularly for working-class and poor Americans and communities of color. With elected bodies that better reflect those viewpoints, we can end the status quo for millions of disenfranchised American voters via a fresh start. And American democracy can get back to doing what is does best: serving the people, all the people, with a deserved shot at a decent future.