Making it count: demographics and the “new” electorate

The new Census report on voting in the 2010 elections was released a couple of weeks ago, and there are some interesting trends there.

As our friends at Nonprofit Vote describe it, “Last year, Hispanics comprised 7% of voters, the highest percentage ever for a non-presidential election. The percentage of non-Hispanic white voters was 77.5%, down from 80.4% in 2006. Tiffany Julian of the Census Bureau’s Education and Social Stratification Branch noted that “The electorate looks much different than when we first started collecting these data 37 years ago,” yet turnout and registration rates still do not mirror the nation’s growing diversity. There are persistent voting gaps for many of the populations that nonprofits serve. In addition to racial and ethnic gaps, economic gaps remain stark: People in families who earned $100,000 or more were more than twice as likely to vote as those who lived with families earning less than $20,000. Homeowners were more likely to both register and vote than renters.” Furthermore, people with at least some college education made up 68 percent of voters. Individuals without a high school diploma comprised 6 percent of voters.

These statistics were made all-too-real for me two weeks ago when I facilitated a voter registration and Get-Out-The-Vote training for a local nonprofit organization that serves a primarily low-income Latino community. When we got to the part of the training where I ask people to think of the objections they’re likely to hear from those they’re trying to engage in the electoral process, the responses came fast and furious.

  • “My one vote won’t matter.”
  • “They’ll just steal the elections anyway.”
  • “I couldn’t figure out who to vote for.”
  • “The whole process is corrupt; I don’t want any part of it.”
  • “They’re not even talking about issues that matter to me–it’s a waste of time.”
  • “I have too much going on to spend time figuring out elections and stuff.”

And on and on and on.

These nonprofit employees weren’t off the mark. The Census Bureau reports that the most common reason people did not vote was they were too busy (27 percent). Another 16 percent felt that their vote would not make a difference.

The truth is that there are a lot of barriers that separate the population this organization serves–mostly native Spanish speakers, a lot of recently naturalized citizens who didn’t grow up in our democratic system, families with young children and a million demands on their time and attention–from active and informed participation in our electoral system.

So that’s why, despite great progress, we still don’t have an electorate that fully represents our population. And the implications are profound, serving to perpetuate policy decisions that, in turn, widen the gap between elected officials and those they should serve.

Demographics alone won’t change our destiny. It’s up to us–including nonprofit organizations well-positioned to engage our constituents in our democracy–to make sure that 2012’s statistics on voter turnout continue the trajectory of increasing participation by communities of color, and that low-income communities are present in the voting booth at this critical time in our economic future.

The numbers may be on “our” side–those of us who want a diverse electorate that invigorates our national conversation about the kind of future we want to build–but history is replete with examples when numbers were not enough.

We’re the missing link, and we’ve got some chasms to hurdle. And not-quite-13-months to get leaping.

3 responses to “Making it count: demographics and the “new” electorate

  1. We’re gearing up for Get out the Vote activites too. And we hear the same comments, it is difficult to get those who feel that their voice is not heard and can’t make a difference. I’m hoping to reach the low income communities and get them registered and motivate them to vote. But it can be hard when folks feel disconnected from legislators in Topeka, Jefferson City and Washington. So sometimes I try to focus on local elections and encourage them to learn about candidates that can be actually met locally.
    It should be an interesting year. I’m glad to hear nonprofits working on getting out the vote!

  2. Yes, we’re just starting to plan ways to go out register people to vote. Also we’re hoping to have a workshop in the spring teaching about voter registration and inviting various local groups to share their knowledge.

    Also we’re planning to work with some other orgs to encourage folks to become more involved with the issues.

    As for what we’re hearing from voters about the presidential election, folks are somewhat disappointed with Obama. However not enough to support a conservative candidate. But we haven’t gone too much outside our membership yet. I’m sure we’ll see a different picture as we do.

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