“Through the vote, citizens communicate information about their interests, preferences, and needs and make important decisions about who should hold office. Unfortunately, at the local level that voice is exceptionally weak.
Disadvantaged segments of the population—racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, those with a limited education—tend to vote significantly less regularly than others…
Municipal Institutions and Voter Turnout in Local Elections, authored by Zoltan L. Hajnal, University of California, San Diego and Paul G. Lewis, Public Policy Institute of California (2003)
In fact, some have even suggested that these low turnout rates signal a crisis in American Democracy
Thomas M. Holbrook and Aaron C. Weinschenk, Campaigns, Mobilization and Turnout in Mayoral Elections, published in Political Research Quarterly on behalf of the University of Utah (2013)
According to Fairvote.org: In the United States, only 60% of our voting eligible population votes in Presidential elections. That number drops to 40% during mid-term elections. Contrast this with other countries: Australia, Belgium, and Chile each boast voter turnout rates of 90%.
In local elections this number is even worse. In mayoral elections, only 27% of the voting eligible population votes. In other city elections, generally it rises to 34%.
In 2011 Austin, Texas Mayor, Lee Leffingwell, in his State of the City address warned:
…I’m especially concerned about what I see as a growing disconnect between citizens and their government. …this is not unique to Austin… …our biggest problem… …is the dangerous level of disinterest in city elections.
Mayor Leffingwell goes on to describe his election win:
In a city of nearly 800,000 people, I won an open mayor’s seat in 2009 with 27,500 votes. The overall turnout in that race was 13%, which is actually the highest it’s been since 2003. In run-offs, we’ve recently seen a turnout as low as 5%.
While these numbers are extremely low, Austin, Texas is not alone. The numbers above clearly demonstrate that many elected local officials cannot represent the majority of their constituents. On average 66% to 73% of the voting eligible citizens didn’t vote in local elections.
Hypothetically, this means that if a large corporation wants elected officials friendly to their causes, all they need to do is focus on a small voter base. To be clear, Corporations can put their candidate in local office with as little as 14% of the voter population.
In a city of 1 million eligible voters, a mere 140,000 voters can potentially become the majority. This view is confirmed by the Municipal Institutions and Voter Turnout in Local Elections article:
The exceedingly low participation in local elections raises a number of concerns. One of the most serious is that the voice of the people in municipal elections is likely to be severely distorted.
As turnout falls, this bias is likely to become more severe… … there is a very real possibility that elected officials and the policies they enact will tend to serve only a small segment of the population.
Thus, voters participating in local elections are not as likely to be ethnic minorities, poor, the uneducated, or under-educated. This potentially leaves these citizens voiceless and disenfranchised.
While these facts appear grim, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
In 2010 the U.S. Census published “Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010.” In it, they found that African Americans represented 12.6% of the American Population. Hispanics represented 16.3% of the population. Asians represented 4.8% of the population. These three minority groups together are 33.7% of the population of the United States.
In 2012, the United States census reports that approximately 202,072,000 were eligible to vote. Based on the percentages above, 25,461,072 of the eligible voters were African American. 32,937,736 voters were Hispanic American and 9,699,456 were Asian American. This is a total minority voting eligible population of 68,098,264 Americans.
According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, In 2012, 20% of all Americans were at under 100% of the federal poverty level. That is 62,498,000 Americans. Of that number 41,365,700 are 18 or older, or, for our purposes, eligible voting age. Further, based on the Kaiser Foundationresearch, 35% or 14,477,995 were African American, 33% or 13,650,681 were Hispanic American and 13% or 5,377,541 were Caucasian.
If a electoral candidate or political party focused outreach efforts the above minority and Caucasian poverty-level voters alone, they would have a potentially up to 73 million American voters, nationally, or 36% of the local voting eligible population in their community.
Lets put this another way:
National midterm elections have average 40% voter participation rate. If only 50% (or 18% of the 36% above) participated in these elections, it could potentially increase participation to 58%. Locally, current voter participation averages 27% to 34%, participation could potentially be raised to 45% and 52%, respectively.
Activating this voter base could have dramatic impacts, both locally and nationally, drastically changing election outcomes that would, in turn, change the face of American Politics.
How do we do this?
Form and engage on-the-ground voting movements focused on these citizens. Community groups, welfare offices, unemployment centers, and churches already advocate for this population. This existing infrastructure could be mobilized to support and expand current voter outreach programs and create new ones, using templates from existing successful programs. With the internet, engagement and organization across long distance would be a non-issue. Newer voter movements could be mentored and take advantage of the experience of programs already in place, utilizing web conferencing and other forms of support.
Then rinse and repeat.
The candidate or political party that does this… wins.
Bob Lewis is a married father of four, grandfather of two (so far…), who lives in Washington State. His goal is to inspire his readers to consider my words and hopefully address these issues individually through civic and public engagement. You can reach and find more of Bob’s writings at One Citizen’s Opinion