And How Many Voters Will Jonathan Chait Register?

Regardless of where you fall on Sanders-Clinton continuum, we are all better off if Democrats win elections–and that means votes. At the presidential level, some back of the envelope calculations suggest Democrats needed on average from two to six additional votes per precinct in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Yes, some precincts are larger than others, and have differing demographics, and so on, but the key point is that just having a few more voters would have swung these states. In other words, voter registration matters, as long-time organizer Alice Marshall notes (boldface mine):

In 1980 The AFL-CIO’s Committee On Political Education hired me to run a voter education project in Virginia’s 4th Congressional District. I made my headquarters in Franklin, Virginia, a paper mill town 40 miles west of Norfolk Virginia. My job was to contact union members who were not registered to vote and persuade them to register as well as contact members who were registered to vote and persuade them to vote for the candidates the union had endorsed.

I was given two computer print-outs of union members, one of union members who were registered to vote and a second, and far larger list, of members who were not registered to vote. Again, my job was to persuade unregistered members to register to vote, and persuade both groups to vote for the union endorsed candidates. So I went about contacting members at the factory gate, by phone, and by mail. In Franklin I went to each shift change at the paper mill, 6 AM, 3 PM, and 11 PM, and distributed fliers urging workers to register and giving the times and places that they could register. I made sure that everyone knew that the registrar kept evening hours on Wednesday evenings. In those days there was no mail-in registration, that was put in by Bill Clinton. So if you could not get to the registrar during regular office hours, there was only one evening you could go to register. Wednesday is prayer night in the South, every church, black and white, has their prayer meetings, choir rehearsal, bible study, and so on, on Wednesday evenings. So by offering extended hours only on Wednesday evenings, the local establishment could effectively disenfranchise workers. Unless, of course, someone like me came to town and asked every worker to register to vote.

The local registrar told me that 1980 had seen the largest increase of voters of any election in her career. In 1976 Franklin had gone for Gerald Ford. In 1980 Franklin voted for Jimmy Carter. I suspect that it was one of the only jurisdictions in the country that flipped from Republican to Democratic in 1980. That experience taught me the power of voter registration. I don’t think we could have saved the country from Reagan merely by voter registration. But there is no doubt that Democrats have lost many elections by failing to incorporate voter registration into their campaign strategy.

I am told that it isn’t worth the effort to mobilize marginal voters, that it is too expensive. But Republicans don’t think so. Republicans spend millions of dollars on voter suppression. For some reason Democrats have never drawn the obvious conclusion, that they can win elections by pushing back against voter suppression. Somehow Democrats think they can win elections even when much of their base stays home.

As I noted above, the voting gains don’t have to be very BIGLY (boldface mine):

When I became Chair of the Voter Registration for the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, I knew that I could dramatically increase the Democratic vote merely by targeted voter registration efforts. By 1998 Bill Clinton had changed the law so that every state had mail-in voter registration. This meant that it was no longer necessary to create satellite registration sites, it was no longer necessary to persuade voters to go to the registrar’s office. Now all you had to do is to get boxes of voter registration applications from the registrar’s office, print up a flier asking people to register to vote, and distribute them. And so, this is precisely what I set about to do. Carefully examining precinct returns to identify those areas with Democratic vote of 60% or better, I identified low rent garden apartments all over Fairfax County for my campaign.

At first I went out by myself; no one on the committee understood what I was doing. But after I was able to report that indeed, voter registration applications were trickling into the registrar’s office, committee members began to volunteer….

I remember a very hot Saturday in July distributing forms in the Vista Gardens apartment complex. My volunteers distributed forms to each of the 1200 apartments. Of these, only 11 were mailed in, a return of less than 1%. Furthermore there is an excellent chance that 3 of these new voters were Republicans. Virginia does not register by party, so this is only a guess. But if the guess is correct we registered a net gain of 5 Democratic votes. However, when you consider that Jack Kennedy won the 1960 election by an average of less than one vote per precinct, you realize that 5 new voters per precinct is a significant gain. Moreover, there were several large apartment complexes in that precinct and we worked all of them. And yes, each weekend saw a return of less than 1%. But altogether we added something like 60 new voters in that precinct that year, and almost certainly at least 50 of them Democrats, for a net gain of 40 votes. 40 additional Democratic votes in a single precinct is a major gain. Furthermore, all the voter registration activity in that precinct had the effect of mobilizing those people who were already registered to vote. The Democratic vote in that precinct increased by an additional 10 points, one of our best gains. Only some precincts offer the opportunity for this sort of gain. But it breaks my heart that local Democratic committees are walking away from these opportunities.

Of course, this sort of citizen democracy freaks the hell out of much, though not all, of the party establishment. Why? Because you need volunteers. And the energy of the party isn’t with corporate centrists, it’s with the left-ish side of the party, especially Sanders supporters and the ‘Sanders curious.’ They’re the people, not centrist pundits, technobrats, or members of the gentry class, who are going to bang on doors in 95˚ degree weather. So real concessions are going to have to be made, both in terms of policy and power, at which point the Iron Law of Institutions kicks in (the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself). Despite calls for unity, this is a fight not only worth having, but that needs to happen. Because we can’t win without votes–and this election was a low-turnout election. Well-supported voter registration efforts will increase turnout.

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6 Responses to And How Many Voters Will Jonathan Chait Register?

  1. Joseph Auclair says:

    Hillary’s black and feminist supporters fried Bernie for insensitivity and his supporters for being too white and too male and too privileged. Williams they get on board with this?

    • Nanny Grogg says:

      I’m a feminist, and me and a large batch of my feminist buddies were wholeheartedly pro Bernie. Of course, my more Orthodox Left acquaintances were too busy nodding along with the antiemetic dog whistles coming from, how shall we say, a certain other section of the left who must remain unidentified.

      Because something, something, White Feminists. Which is a slur now, I guess?

      We all turned out to vote for Hillary, but I’m the only one who lives in a swing state, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.

  2. Net Denizen says:

    See, the problem with the democratic party — as Mr Mad Biologist has noted on several occasions — is that they are only concerned with appearances and not actually DOING anything. It’s not like handing out voter forms is particularly difficult or egregious, either. Neither is voting NO on each and every confirmation in front of the Senate, but somehow they can’t even be bothered to do that much work to build their base….

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