At the ballot box, there are two different electorates — and the difference between them makes a big difference for policy outcomes.
“Democrats have become increasingly reliant on precisely the groups most likely to sit out midterms, while Republicans score best among those most likely to show up,” says Ron Brownstein, writing in the Atlantic about the difference between presidential-year electorates and midterm electorates like the one politicians face in two weeks.
Brownstein describes the distorting effect this has on policies at the federal level and, especially, the state level, where most governors are on a midterm cycle. Midterm electorates are older, whiter, and wealthier than Americans as a whole.
This is one of the most important things to understand about American politics. It’s like a football game in which every other quarter is fought between one end zone and the opposite 40-yard-line.
In the short term, Republicans are looking to use this smaller electorate to win a Senate majority and pad their margins in the House and at the state level. Democrats are trying to counter it with aggressive ground campaigns to make “unlikely voters” into actual voters.
Conservatives know that this dynamic is working in their favor. You’d think that doing better the fewer people vote would be a depressing or at least an embarrassing thing, but a lot of voices on the right are just plain bragging about it. They seem to want a lot of their fellow Americans to self-deport from political participation.
There’s a tendency to talk about the right to vote as if it’s a perk for flying first-class — to have too many people get it cheapens it, watering it down for the people who really deserve it. And as Josh Marshall and Ed Kilgore both noted in these pages, the idea that there’s something inherently corrupt in widespread access to voting — for lower-income voters, younger voters and especially single women — runs deep on the right.
“Voting is the most shallow gesture of citizenship there is,” says Kevin Williamson of National Review, trying to convince people that there’s no shame in not coming out to vote.
This theme is a staple of Fox News, of course, with multiple instances over the past month of hosts saying that women are too clueless to vote.
New Jersey’s no-hope Senate candidate, Jeff Bell — a longtime Republican operative — insisted recently that his huge deficit in the polls shouldn’t be counted against him, because single women are married to the benefits they get from government.
In Wisconsin, national GOP co-chair Sharon Day expressed bafflement at why the gubernatorial election is a tossup, “much closer than I can even understand why. I don’t want to say anything about your Wisconsin voters but, some of them might not be as sharp as a knife.”
And it goes all the way up, of course; pre-election, Mitt Romney had his 47 percent tape, and post-election he groused that his loss was only because people were just voting for “big gifts.”
“The poor can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians,” Matthew Vadum has said, putting explicitly what Romney left between the lines. “Welfare recipients are particularly open to demagoguery and bribery. Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals.”
“If it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people,” said one official of low-income voter participation. “Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies.” That wasn’t a right-wing pundit or political operative; of course. It was Leung Chun-ying, the Beijing-appointed executive of Hong Kong. But one could easily get confused.
You can’t claim to believe in self-governance — the value supposedly at the heart of the conservative creed — and have contempt for the act of voting. You can’t think people should be part of a political process and then say they’re too dumb. Faced with the notion of their principles and policies losing at the ballot box, many conservatives have decided that they’d rather put an asterisk on some voters.
If it were just discouragement and disparagement, that would be one thing. But while with one hand right-wingers are dismissing the importance of voting, with the other they’re building walls around it.
Since their enormous success in 2010, state legislative Republicans have sought to roll back access to the ballot box and entrench their own power. It ranges from voter ID laws to cutbacks in early voting days. In Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp has been accused of sitting on tens of thousands of voter registrations gathered by a mobilization group he’s clashed with before. If voting was just an empty gesture, Republicans wouldn’t be working so tirelessly to make it harder to do.
Republicans know, as Brownstein points out, that a demographic tide is against them in the long term. So instead of reaching out to the people who make presidential years so different, they’re trying to exploit the power they have now to shrink the electorate for the future, and erode the norm of a right to vote.
Scott Walker, defending his state’s voter ID law, said it doesn’t matter how small the problem of “fraud” is that voter ID is theoretically intended to stop, because we shouldn’t “cancel out” any good votes with bad ones. This doesn’t make sense from a standpoint of actual outcomes, in which tens of thousands of people have their votes effectively “cancelled out” by voter ID in order to stop a problem that would take an electron microscope to find. It only makes sense if you think that the vote is something you have to ear based on whether Scott Walker thinks you deserve it.
Last year, Don Yelton, a local Republican activist and precinct captain in North Carolina, came under fire when he stated explicitly that voter ID was meant not to fight fraud but to screen out those who didn’t deserve to vote. “The law is going to kick the Democrats in the butt,” Yelton said on the Daily Show. “If it hurts a bunch of college kids too lazy to get up off their bohonkas and go get a photo ID, so be it. If it hurts a bunch of whites, so be it. If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.” He’s no longer affiliated with the local Republican Party. But he was pushed out of his position not because he believes something grossly un-democratic, but because he said the quiet part loud.
People are busy. They’re working harder for less, and they understandably think that not just the economy, but also the political system, is rigged against them. The rhetoric of politics is so often aimed at the smaller “likely” electorate — and more specifically, the donor class — than it is to most people. It’s easy to see why eligible voters might wonder if it’s worth their while to turn out.
But to write off voting as “shallow” while simultaneously making it harder is a deeply cynical power grab. The right to vote is the one form of political participation anyone can do, whether or not they have the money to write a check to a super PAC, the free time to go phone bank or the connections to run for office. That everyone’s vote counts the same is the whole point of it, not a bug for conservative pundits to grouse and whine about.
And if voter turnout looked more like presidential turnout all the time, we wouldn’t be fighting most elections on the right half of the field. Both parties would have to be more responsive to younger and less-well-off audiences to win on a consistent basis. It’s not healthy to have a process where so much of the electorate feels disengaged.
Widespread access should be the case everywhere. We should be making it easier to vote, not harder, with options to vote early in-person or by mail, and by having the option of same-day registration. It would also be worth enshrining an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution.
To dismiss voting and declare it outside the grasp of people you disdain while trying to build a high fence around it is to give away the game. You don’t actually think self-governance is something everyone should have, you think it’s a privilege, one reserved for people who think and vote like you.
The best counterbalance we have to the anti-voting coalition is to take the next few weeks and do exactly what they’re afraid of: vote and do what you can to encourage everyone else to vote, too.
Seth D. Michaels is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., He’s on Twitter as @sethdmichaels.