October 16, 2018

Voter Participation and the Party: One Year Later

Somewhat improved


The depressed turnout that cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election was due to both voter suppression efforts by Republicans and the Democratic Party’s own inability to mobilize its base. The party has made some progress on both counts in the past year. However, party leadership still does little to energize voters to turn out for candidates running credible campaigns for genuinely progressive policies.

Republican strategists are hell-bent on keeping targeted voters from the polls — specifically people of color, the young, and others apt to cast ballots for Democrats. Those efforts got a big boost from the Supreme Court’s Husted decision in June 2018 to uphold Ohio’s mass purge of so-called “inactive” voters. The ruling is expected to prompt other states to follow suit, just as the 2013 court decision weakening the Voting Rights Act and allowing purges without federal approval coincided with aggressive voter removal in nine states with a history of racial discrimination.

The Democratic National Committee’s response to such measures has grown more robust in the past year, with the creation of the “IWillVote” program to register new voters and fight voter-suppression efforts. The initiative has provided grants in 41 states and territories, aiming to reach 50 million voters by the November midterm election.

The party has also supported restoring felons’ right to vote. In April, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged to restore suffrage to felons on parole. And Democratic leaders in Florida, including the party’s gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, are supporting a ballot measure to restore felons’ voting rights. The Florida ballot measure is particularly important, taking place in a purple state where as many as 10 percent of adults are unable to vote because of a conviction. These common-sense, fundamentally democratic measures are popular among both Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, automatically registering everyone to vote has emerged as a popular and practical way to address discriminatory voter restrictions. In 2018, eight states and the District of Columbia approved or began implementing automatic voter registration (AVR). These laws were virtually nonexistent in the U.S. three years ago, but now 13 states and DC have enacted them.

AVR represents a double victory for the party — registering millions of voters when higher turnout benefits Democrats, while also siding with clear public opinion. Two-thirds of Americans want automatic voter registration for citizens, including a majority of both Republicans and Democrats.

Yet most of the Democratic leadership has remained hesitant to organize around other clearly popular policies. As the Autopsy pointed out a year ago, a sizable number of voters in marginalized communities are apt to see scant difference between the two major parties; for many, the Democratic Party simply does not have credibility on what should be its core issues. In a country where only 61.4 percent of eligible voters turned out for a hotly contested presidential race in 2016, the Democratic Party could dramatically boost voter participation by mobilizing around voters’ hunger for progressive policies:

  • 76% of the U.S. public supports higher taxes on the wealthy.
  • 70% of the U.S. public supports Medicare for All.
  • 59% of the U.S. public supports a $15 minimum wage.
  • 60% of the U.S. public supports expanded tuition-free college.
  • 69% of the U.S. public opposes overturning Roe v. Wade.
  • 94% of the U.S. public supports an Equal Rights Amendment.
  • 65% or more of the U.S. public supports progressive criminal justice reform.
  • 59% of the U.S. public supports stricter environmental regulation.

The Democratic Party routinely seems unable or unwilling to take full electoral advantage of such public opinion. Despite its expressed resistance to Trump’s agenda throughout 2018 and its embrace of some genuinely progressive positions, the party has not come close to addressing its fundamental lack of credibility with voters. This is manifested in the party’s continued slide in favorability; a Quinnipiac poll in March 2018 showed just 31 percent of the country had a positive view of Democrats — down from 37 percent four months earlier and 44 percent a year earlier, according to CNN polls. A survey by Rasmussen Reports found that 71 percent of voters wish Democrats would stress the specific policies where they disagree with Trump, as opposed to vague resistance.

The ties that bind the party to big-money donors constrain policy shifts that could appeal to widespread public sentiment on a range of issues. Democrats now receive about 44 percent of all contributions given by industry PACs, up 3 percent from last year. Voter turnout is apt to fall short when many are left doubting that the Democratic Party will make good on its progressive rhetoric.

Next -> Social Movements and the Party

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