The Left and Voter Turnout

Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr

By Duane Campbell

In 2014 DSA should turn to electoral campaigns as one element of our political strategy.  As we know, the U.S. political system is overrun by money.  Economic power at the top is used to produce political results in Congress and in elections.  The rich get richer while the middle stagnates and the poor get screwed.

 Our response must be encouraging more voting, not less.  The lack of interest in electoral participation expressed in many places is not progress for the left, rather it reveals a lack of interest in defending democracy. Not voting is giving up on what democracy we have.  Yes, our democracy is truncated, exploited, and distorted by economic power, but we need to grow and expand democracy, not abandon it.

We can make a difference in the electoral arena.  We recognize that many working people have a general distrust of political parties – and often  the parties  deserve this distrust.  Working people do not have – in most cases – representatives in our government nor a party which fundamentally represents our  interests.  While the parties divide on some issues, both mainstream parties are dominated by corporate interests.

Both parties have failed working people, and our democracy is weaker for this.  In response, millions, about half of all the eligible voters, do not even vote. They do not believe that their participation matters. This is a frightening defeat for democracy.

Voter turnout matters.  For example, in California turnout was critical in 1994 in losing Proposition 209 (Affirmative Action) and in 1996 in losing Prop. 227 (anti-bilingual education). In 2012, increased turnout made possible passage of Prop.30 — a tax on the rich to fund schools and social services.

The 2014 report, True South Unleashing Democracy in the Black Belt, by Ben Jealous, notes the voter turnout in 2012 for Barack Obama, along with changing demographics in the South,  to argue that increased turnout of black and Latino voters could turn the elections of North Carolina and Virginia and soon even some Congressional districts in Georgia against the Republicans.

How do we convince people to vote?

  •  We recognize that motivation is about emotion.  We need to engage their feelings.  They need to hear, feel, experience the battle.
  • We recognize that people are motivated (and convinced) by taking action, more than by argumentation.  Getting someone to take an action is vital.  Actions can include: going to a meeting, making a donation, campaigning, signing a pledge.

So what should we in DSA do?  We need to select and engage in some electoral battles. Our selection could be based upon whether:

  • It is an important issue.
  • Our allies are working on it.
  • There is a democratic socialist thread in the campaign.

For example, we can do anti-austerity work by supporting candidates at all levels  who call for  job creation, wage increases, and benefits for working families  and who oppose public sector  budget cuts in social services and pensions. The Working America campaigns of the AFL-CIO have demonstrated that low-propensity voters can readily understand and  will vote for  such candidates – if canvassers  listen to them and talk with them.   

 In our work we can explain that the assault on unions, pensions and public education are a part of a neoliberal strategy to weaken unions and gut the public sector.

In some states, such as the upper Midwest, where low voter turnout in 2010 delivered the states to the Republican governance (Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania), campaigns targeting low-income voters can focus on reversing the severe austerity of state budgets and the increased voting restrictions. Union members, including retirees, can work within their unions to increase voter turnout.  Union members in contested states as well as in the South vote more Democratic than their Tea Party-leaning age and gender cohorts among the white working class.  (See Levison, The White Working Class Today. 2013)

We can work with the Moral Freedom Summer campaign in North Carolina and similar efforts in Georgia to reverse voter suppression laws.  Efforts targeted at low-income persons can challenge the Republican decisions to prevent the expansion of Medicaid to the poor and low-income families.

Voters will turn out when issues vital to them are on the line.   In states like Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Louisiana and Mississippi, among others, organized work could increase turnout by focusing on the war on women and these states’ recent restrictions on abortion clinics and abortion rights.

In states with large Latino and immigrant populations, organized outreach can improve turnout to punish the Republican House members who have blocked immigration reform (almost all of them).  Recent immigrants cannot vote since they are not citizens, but they are members of families and networks  where many relatives, friends and neighbors  can vote.

Building DSA

We need to stand and fight for what is right.  That is what socialists do. In electoral work we often need to engage in campaigns where the issue is right v. wrong, such as raising the minimum wage – not necessarily in support of a candidate.   If it is about a candidate, then we need to focus on defending something concrete – like public education and a woman’s right to medical care.   Low-propensity voters engage when the fight is about their values and their lives.

As we engage in campaigns we should build DSA.  We will be talking with new people, not just to ourselves.  We can share DSA literature with other activists, hold DSA-led forums, film showings, etc.

Our work often requires that we have our own or allied campaign structures, not necessarily integrating into the candidate’s or the party’s campaigns.  In our work and  forums we can explain the limits of current capitalism and the control of our government by the capitalist class. We can recruit from among campaign activists and highly interested voters  to join with DSA for future work.

The two major parties reveal deep divisions based upon race, ethnicity and, to a lesser extent, social class.  Since the early 1990’s, both parties have become more ideological, with the class divisions in the society running down the middle of the Democratic Party.  The Congressional Progressive Caucus has some 65 members.

The consolidation of a white Republican Party in the South has delivered control of state houses and the Congress and often  the White House to the Republicans. The white Republican Party may well deliver the Senate to the Republicans in 2014.  

The Republican Party is correctly seen as the party of capitalists and home for Tea Party conservatism.  The Democratic Party fields a long list of candidates and their supporters but with little ideological party cohesion except to oppose Republicans.

The divisions between the two parties are at times significant, with complex regional and racial dimensions.   And, while cynics argue that there is little difference between the parties, young women (beyond the small leftist circles) see a Supreme Court sharply divided between Republican ( men) and Democratic (women) that decided 5-4 on health care restrictions  in the Hobby Lobby case on  the ACA  that denied some  women’s rights to contraception.  Education and organizing can turn these young women into new voters and some of them into DSA members.

While we recognize that neither of the major parties will join with us to oppose global capitalism and imperialism, there are opportunities to engage in the fight for gender justice and rights and against voter suppression.  Recent positive campaigns to increase the minimum wage and demand fair wages have engaged and united working families.   Engaging in these electoral struggles encourages people to expect more from their voting and their government – a necessary precondition for democratic socialism.

We need to respond to widespread cynicism with agency.   The ruling class wants us to be discouraged, to stay home on election day, and to hand our nation over to them. How do we change this situation?   We do not give up on democracy.  We will not cede the future of our nation to the corporations.


Duane Campbell is a professor emeritus of bilingual multicultural education at California State University Sacramento, a union activist, and chair of Sacramento DSA.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.