A core challenge for the Democratic Party will be to raise the voter participation rate while drawing presently apathetic and uninvolved nonvoters and occasional voters into the process — largely younger people and African Americans. The United States has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the developed world, and voting skews heavily toward older, richer and whiter voters.
There are two primary drivers of depressed turnout for Democrats, and it’s essential to be honest about both. The first we’ll call “Republican-created problems,” and the second we’ll call “self-inflicted” ones.
Republican-created problems are ones that the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton had little to do with in 2016 and indeed made some efforts to combat. These include the elaborate right-wing efforts to disenfranchise minority voters through voter ID laws, gerrymandering, the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and online disinformation. In an article published by The Nation one day after the November 2016 election, Ari Berman noted that 14 states had new voting restrictions in place for the first time that year:
27,000 votes currently separate Trump and Clinton in Wisconsin, where 300,000 registered voters, according to a federal court, lacked strict forms of voter ID. Voter turnout in Wisconsin was at its lowest levels in 20 years and decreased 13 percent in Milwaukee, where 70 percent of the state’s African-American population lives, according to Daniel Nichanian of the University of Chicago.
Working to defeat restrictions on voting rights should clearly be a top priority for Democrats, augmenting battles through the courts with coordination efforts between grassroots activism and the party apparatus. Yet the Democratic National Committee has not made such work a staffing priority. “In the past, the DNC had one full-time staffer focused on voter protection,” The Nation reported in late May 2017. The magazine described the upcoming progress of the DNC’s new Voter Protection and Empowerment Unit: “The new unit will have four staffers.”
The Democratic Party’s “self-inflicted” voter suppression will be the main focus of this section because (a) there’s more that can be done in the short term to combat it, and (b) a candid conversation about it is far less common in liberal circles. It’s not enough to just blame Republicans for a dearth of voter participation in 2016. Democrats must be candid about the extent of their own responsibility.
Part of the problem is tepid voter enthusiasm, namely among African Americans and the young. In 2016 the turnout of African-American voters fell well below several models; 59.6 percent of eligible black voters cast ballots, down from the 66 percent who voted in 2012. This cannot be chalked up entirely to Obama not being on the ticket. Nor was this trend seen just in states with successful voter suppression efforts aimed at African Americans; it occurred across the board. As the New York Times documented in its profile of black voters in Milwaukee, there was a clear sense that the Democratic Party, while certainly preferable to Republicans, had stopped fighting for working people.
A loss of confidence in the party is apparently also coming from its most reliable voting bloc, African-American women. The Democratic Party has experienced an 11 percent drop in support from black women according to one survey, while the percentage of black women who said neither party represents them went from 13 percent in 2016 to 21 percent in 2017.
The underlying economic conditions, while perhaps ameliorated by a Democratic president, are still failing many millions of poor and working-class Americans. By co-opting the language, and often times the policies, of the Republicans, it became increasingly hard for Democrats to distinguish themselves from the GOP. And if there’s a general sense that the differences are not significant, it makes voting seem that much less urgent. The overriding issue is not about the reality of the differences, it’s about the perception of them. In a 2013 survey, 60 percent of Americans said it doesn’t matter which party controls Congress — a poisonous image problem that can best be countered with a clear, progressive reboot of the Democratic Party.
Another large group with a participation issue is young people, who encounter a toxic combination of a depressed economic reality, GOP efforts at voter suppression, and anemic messaging on the part of Democrats. No matter which way one looks, the issue boils down to — most urgently — an inability to authentically market the party as a defender of the less well-off.
To significantly boost voter participation, Democrats need to stand for a progressive platform that truly distinguishes them from the Republicans and the status quo that has let so many Americans down. To best end the malaise, the party must offer a vision that motivates. A party doesn’t grow by simply tallying up members and scolding them into showing up. To flourish, the Democratic Party needs an emphatic mission and a clear moral message that excites and provides a purpose that is distinct from the otherwise cynical spectacle of politics. Inspiring programs for truly universal health care, racial justice, free public college tuition, economic security, new infrastructure, green jobs and tackling the climate crisis can do this.
This is about more than just increasing voter turnout. It is about energizing as well as expanding the base of the party. To do this we must aggressively pursue two tracks: fighting right-wing efforts to rig the political system, and giving people who can vote a truly compelling reason to do so.