An emerging theme from the media’s analysis of the 2016 election is that the Democrats failed to connect with the white working class voters in the heartlands that voted in large droves for President Trump. That is, Hillary Clinton should have spent more time in the Rust Belt.
There has been a borderline obsession with this theory in the media, as television personalities and op-ed columnists alike have pontificated about the importance of this segment of the population. Books like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy have become increasingly popular in Democratic circles, with progressive thinkers heaping praise on the book for giving the “liberal coastal elites” an insight into Appalachian culture—depicted as the holy grail of all rural, white, working class voters that the party has seen slip from their grasp as globalization and green energy have stolen their livelihoods.
This commentary, however, is missing a crucial point. Although there was a failure to reach these voters, and Trump’s success with them cannot be denied, there has been too much emphasis placed on the need to understand this segment of the electorate and win back their vote. Instead, the real focus of the Democratic Party should be on gaining a keener understanding of the plight of the poor, in order to secure and turn out this critical voting bloc.
Far too often, it seems that the poor—who are disproportionately people of color —are overlooked. While Democrats often ask us to empathize with the coal miner in West Virginia who lost his job, they often fail to ask us to empathize with the black or brown mother who must work two jobs, often day and night, in order to feed her family, all the while worrying that her children will not make it home from school safely. The poor face many struggles unfamiliar to the rest of society that are not nearly as well covered in the media.
Sadly, these voters are not discussed very often. Part of the reason for the disproportionate focus of media coverage is because the poor have a much lower voting rate than the rest of America, including the white working class. This, despite the fact that the poor have the most on the line when health care policy is discussed, school funding is brought up, and labor regulations are negotiated. These voters do not need to be lectured about the stakes of any given election— they live it every day. The reason they fail to vote is not because they do not care, but is rather because of the many systems in place which serve to disenfranchise them.
While some may argue that this is also in part due to the fact that there isn’t a large enough gap between Republican and Democrat policy or that the Democratic message does not appeal to them, those arguments are unfounded. There is in fact a huge difference between those in the GOP, who want to repeal the Affordable Care Act and take away coverage from millions —primarily poor folks who rely on Medicaid —and Democrats, some of whom even support single-payer universal healthcare. The difference between a Republican who wants to strip away your health care and a Democrat who does not in and of itself ought to be enough of a difference to motivate the poor to vote. However, that Democrats could improve their messaging by talking more about issues that affect the poor, particularly those like criminal justice reform that have bipartisan support.
When examining the relationship between voter turnout and poverty, there are a few major points that stand out. The first is the actual number of Americans who live in poverty. According to the US Census Bureau, the official poverty rate in 2015 was 13.5%, or more than 44.1 million Americans. That is a huge segment of the population, millions more than the number of Americans living in Appalachia, who number at 25.2 million (note: there is overlap between these groups).
Furthermore, the poor live all over America. They are rural voters in the Midwest, urban voters on the coast, and everywhere in between. In fact, poverty is more prevalent in non-urban areas, particularly in the South, an area where Democrats are weak (not to mention the coveted Midwest!). The Democratic Party simply cannot write off the South and all the black Democrats who have been let down since Reconstruction. This is a powerful and far-reaching message.
Another sobering statistic: those who live in poverty vote in presidential elections at a rate of approximately 40%, while the national average is closer to 60%. In fact, according to data from the US Census Bureau, the wealthiest citizens vote at close to a rate of 100%. This shows that there is indeed a correlation between getting to the polls to vote and one’s wealth and resources.
Sadly, voting is inaccessible for millions of people, especially the poor. Holding elections on a weekday makes it even more difficult to vote for those who cannot miss work or work multiple jobs—both of which are circumstances more likely to be faced by poor people. Moreover, states are increasingly passing stricter photo ID requirements for voting, yet another barrier to both low-income folks and people of color. Research shows that both ethnic minorities and poor people are less likely to own a photo-ID. These laws have been proven to reduce turnout of people of color in the name of preventing voter fraud, which is an almost nonexistent problem (less than 50 cases in over 1 billion votes since 2000). There are a multitude of other laws and regulations aimed at restricting the poor from voting, including: cutting short the early voting period, restricting voter registration drives, banning former felons from voting, requiring documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote, making it harder to offer voter assistance, reducing early voting and weekend voting hours, restricting absentee and provisional ballot rules, and limiting voter registration.
This is a problem that is only getting worse, as states are increasingly attempting to pass even more restrictive voting laws aimed at disenfranchising the poor and people of color. A little over ten years ago, in 2006, there wasn’t a single state that required Election Day photo-ID, while today there are ten. Overall, 33 state have some form of voter ID laws and in this past legislative session ten different states looked at creating some form of stricter ID requirements (and another ten looked at other ways to make voting more difficult, like limiting early voting). Additionally, the Trump administration recently created a voter fraud commission requesting private personal data like social security numbers, leading many people to deregister out of fear of their state giving away their private information to the federal government.
Liberal pundits have discussed how close Hillary came to winning the election, postulating that if the party had just convinced a few thousand more working class white folks to vote Democrat, the party would have won. That is not the future though, nor is it especially strategic. According to Pew Research there is increasing income inequality in our country. In addition, according to Pew the country is only becoming more and more diverse, and will eventually be a minority-majority country sometime in the next 30 to 50 years if demographic trends continue. These trends show the strategic importance of crafting a platform and message that appeals to the poor and the ethnically and racially diverse in this country. Looking at the census and voting data, if Democrats could just increase the percentage of poor people who vote to the national average, there would be 6.7 million more voters, a huge increase.* Research by Demos, a public policy organization, and professors Jen E. Leighley of University of Arizona and Jonathan Nagler of NYU show that those in poverty are much more likely to hold liberal policy views in general, and specifically in regards to healthcare, labor, and economics. This means that Democrats would likely benefit electorally from increased voting amongst this demographic. And of course, expanding voting rights is, quite simply, the morally right thing to do.
Democrats should focus on getting out the vote amongst low-income citizens. To do this, they must enact voting rights reforms and stop the current assault on voting rights occurring across the country. Democrats must make it easier for the poor and people of color to exercise their right to vote. They must focus on understanding the conditions of the poor, and concentrate on the issues that matter to them. There should be discussions about affordable housing, childcare, access to education, healthcare, and labor organizing.
This does not mean the Democratic Party should stop attracting other voters, but instead must merely focus more of their energy on the low-income voters that have been ignored for too long. The Democratic Party must have a message that appeals to voters across the board: justice, fairness, equality, and compassion. They must put energy into turning out low-income voters. Not only do these citizens deserve better representation, but this strategy is most certainly in the party’s best interest.
*This is based on there being 44.1 million people in poverty, and that 76 percent of Americans are older than 18 ( assuming this number holds the same for those in poverty), so 33.5 million poor people who should be able to vote. Currently the voting rate for the poor is 40 percent and the national average is 60 percent, so increasing it by 20 percent would get you to the national average. 20 percent of 33.5 is 6.7 million.
Reuben Siegman ‘18 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.