Getting Low Income Voters to the Polls
by Chris Bowers, Fri Sep 23, 2005 at 10:29:08 AM EDT
Median Annual Income, in thousands of dollars National Electorate Difference 1976 11.2 14.1 25.9% 1980 15.4 22.7 47.4% 1984 19.5 29.0 48.7% 1988 22.8 34.0 67.1% 1992 26.1 38.0 45.6% 1996 28.2 41.9 48.6% 2000 33.0 53.0 60.6% 2004 35.1 55.3 57.5%Admittedly, there are not the best numbers for national median income. I calculated national median income using this page, and taking the simple mean of male and female median income. The 2004 national median income is simply the 2002 national median income. I would have better numbers, but the census page is down. Aarrgghhh.
Even with the problems in the numbers, I think this table shows just how much wealthier the electorate is than the nation as a whole. It also shows, I believe that this is a chronic problem, rather than something new. It began to grow far worse in the 1970's and is directly connected to the overall decline in voter turnout since 1968 (a problem that saw a brief reversal in 1992, and a somewhat smaller reversal in 2004).
At first, low turnout among low income voters was almost certainly related to the mentality of the bystander in the Pew typology study. The bystander is typically young, and young people tend to have less income than their elders. Also, the granting of the franchise to 18-20 year olds in the 1970's would have further increased the impact of this group on overall voter turnout. Many people I know who were teens in the 1970's are also fond of emphasizing how is was a rather extreme period of disillusionment among youth, and I am willing to take them at their word that this probably had a more extreme impact on the youth vote then than it still does today.
Of course, since the 1980's, another major factor has come into play: voter disenfranchisement. Nationally, over four million Americans have been disenfranchised, primarily as a result of a wave of new felony disenfranchisement laws in the 1970's and 1980's coupled with the extreme rise in the national prisoner population as a result of the "war on drugs." Such disenfranchisement has been overwhelmingly targeted and minorities and low-income demographic groups, further exacerbating the income gap between the nation and the electorate.
Considering the above table, it would appear that after the youth started coming back to the polls, the overall income between the nation and electorate remained steady probably because of the great increase in disenfranchisement starting in the early and mid-1980's. Now, many have suggested that this post-1976 increase also took place because many low-income voters stopped feeling as though either of the major political parties represented their economic interests. While there is not enough data here to draw a definitive conclusion on that issue one way or the other, there does seem to be a general narrative problem with that theory. After all, the income gap between the electorate and the nation as a whole shot way up before "third way" or centrists organizations within the Democratic Party ever came into being, and in no way seems to have been exacerbated by Clinton's 1992 and 1996 campaigns. It should be noted that the 2000 campaign did witness a noticeable increase in the income gap from the two previous campaigns.
The degree to which these three factors--youth bystanders, felony disenfranchisement, and corporatist economics--each play a role in the income gap between the nation and the electorate is debatable. One thing, however, is not debatable: this has been going on for a long time. As such, any notion that a single individual or set of campaign proposals will rectify this problem is misguided. As a chronic problem, it requires a broad-based, multi-faceted long-term solution. It is a problem that Democrats must address, otherwise they will consistently face an electorate that is structurally stacked against them, thus making any future governing majority all the more difficult to construct.