Ballot Blocks

Election day in New York City, November 4, 1997. A cold wind whips through the streets of East Harlem, but sun peeks through billowy clouds and rain is nowhere in sight. A chipper young campaign worker stands on the corner of 125th Street handing out flyers for a city council candidate. She's hopeful about turnout. "I think people are going to vote because the weather is nice," she predicts. A few blocks away, on 120th Street, dutiful citizens—most of them older—trickle into a dilapidated elementary school that serves as a polling place.

This year, as in years past, those voting will be a minority in Harlem. As the Democratic candidate for mayor, Ruth Messinger, is defeated by Rudolph Giuliani, the vast majority of adults in Harlem—natural supporters of the reliably liberal Messinger—are staying away from the polls. "I don't like Giuliani, but I'm not excited about anyone else," says a young woman who is registered but not voting. Many others aren't even registered. "I ain't never got the paper," says William, a young man with an intelligent manner and thick glasses who is hanging out with a friend at the corner of Lexington and 123rd Street. "I just never voted." William wonders why these questions are being asked. Because it's election day, his friend explains.

One week after the election, a desultory meeting is underway at the New York League of Women Voters. The night's topic is "Making Democracy Work." Twelve members of the league have shown up, out of a citywide membership of 1,000. The principal item on the table is raising turnout, and everyone is bemoaning the figures from the election. Returns indicate that only 38 percent of registered voters went to the polls—about 1.5 million New Yorkers in a city where nearly 5 million people are eligible to vote. From past experience, members of the league know that when final data come in they will show turnout in poor neighborhoods like Harlem lagging far behind that of the rest of the city. In a modest response, the league is developing a plan to increase voting in one impoverished city council district in Brooklyn where turnout in recent elections has been particularly dismal.

Members discuss civic education in the neighborhood, trying to reach young people in the high schools, going door to door to raise voter awareness. Nobody is very hopeful about success: the task of raising turnout in even a single poor neighborhood seems Herculean. In all probability, the 1998 midterm elections—with both the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs—will again be an exercise in mass indifference as several million city residents, many of them desperately poor, fail to exercise their most basic democratic right.

New York City is unique in its vast numbers of nonvoters; there are more nonvoters in New York than the entire population of Chicago. But in terms of turnout by percentage of registered voters, New York is actually doing better than many other cities. In Boston's most recent mayoral race, a paltry 28 percent of registered voters bothered to cast ballots. In Atlanta, last November's mayoral contest attracted 29 percent of voters, despite nearly $5 million in campaign spending. In Los Angeles, turnout in last April's mayoral contest was only half as great as turnouts recorded in the 1969 and 1973 mayoral contests. In all cities throughout the United States, those who participate the least are poor people.

The political disengagement of many urban Americans matters at several levels. In terms of social and economic policy, the implications are bitterly ironic. Few groups have more at stake in public policy than the urban poor. Low-income city dwellers are more likely to rely on public assistance, live in subsidized housing, send their children to public school, and rely on public hospitals than others in the United States. When the urban poor don't vote, they worsen their precarious situation by giving politicians little reason to care about them. This pattern is repeated nationwide: in a country where tens of millions of low-income people don't vote, politicians face few penalties when they cut poverty programs and redistribute income upward.

Nonvoting in cities also has major ramifications for the larger prospects of urban America. In the 1992 presidential election, suburban voters outnumbered urban voters for the first time. This shift capped long-apparent trends in which cities have lost clout in national and state politics. In New York State, for example, New York City's percentage of the total state vote has fallen by more than 15 percent since 1952. This declining influence has meant less aid for cities even as urban woes have mounted in many places. Funding has fallen for such purposes as infrastructure, the arts, and public parks. While higher voter turnout in cities would not reverse the suburbanization of American life, it might at least help urban areas secure a larger share of state and national budgetary pies.

A vicious circle is at work here: urban poor people are disengaged from a politics in which nobody seems to speak for them. Political leaders, in turn, see no incentive to represent the views of dropouts and instead tailor their appeals to suit more affluent (and centrist) voters. Ending this pattern will not be easy, but the payoff could be significant, especially for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Mobilized in large numbers, poor urban voters could decisively aid progressive candidates in citywide races, have a major impact on senatorial and gubernatorial contests in many states, and also influence presidential elections.

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Given all that is at stake, one would think that urban nonvoting would be a heavily studied topic. Strangely, it is not, and investigation into this matter meets with obstacles at every turn. The vast scholarly literature on voting has little to say about the urban poor, and data that break down participation by income are notoriously hard to come by. Most city election agencies cannot even say for certain what percentage of a city's eligible adult population is registered to vote, much less specify the unregistered by class or race. Analysis of possible remedies is fragmentary, and little research exists about what works best to get poor city people to the polls.

Voting is just one way for the urban poor to influence the public institutions that so strongly affect their lives. Still, while voting rates are an imperfect measure of overall political empowerment, no other indicator tells a more vivid story about the shortcomings of democracy in America's cities.


The nonvoting of the urban poor takes place in a broader context: all Americans are voting less than they used to, and all poor people—wherever they live—vote at lower rates than wealthier Americans. Between 1960 and 1988, according to National Election Study data, turnout among eligible voters making less than $7,500 fell from 65.4 percent to 45.2 percent. Meanwhile, turnout among Americans making more than $50,000 only fell from 94.3 percent to 86.5 percent. Conflicting data from the Census Bureau for this period show a slightly smaller gap between poor voters and wealthier voters, but do not challenge the basic fact that better-off Americans vote at a much higher rate than poor Americans.

One particularly depressing chapter in the story of nonvoting among low-income Americans was written in 1994. Perhaps no other election in the past 60 years has carried greater significance for poor people. Yet even as Republicans announced an attack on entitlement programs in the Contract with America, low-income people stayed away from the polls in huge numbers. A census report issued in June 1995 showed that turnout among eligible citizens earning less than $5,000 a year had fallen to 20 percent in 1994 from 32 percent in 1990. For those with incomes between $5,000 and $10,000, voter turnout dropped to 23 percent from 31 percent. In contrast, voter turnout among those earning at least $50,000 climbed to 60 percent from 59 percent. Overall, those in the higher income brackets made up 23 percent of the voting population in 1994, up from 18 percent in 1990. In 1996, after the intentions of the Republican Congress had been amply demonstrated and with a presidential race at stake, poor voters again turned out at much lower levels than wealthier voters. In the 20 poorest congressional districts an average of only 42 percent of voters turned out—compared to 57 percent of voters in the 20 richest districts.

Poor Americans vote less than wealthier Americans for various reasons, most of which are unsurprising. First, political scientists agree that the poor vote less because they have fewer resources to spare. All forms of civic participation, even the simple act of voting, exact a cost whether measured in time, energy, or money. Those with more income are better positioned to pay this cost. Second, the poor are less educated, and education levels correlate closely with voting. Educated citizens have more skills with which to participate, in terms of obtaining information about the mechanics of voting and becoming familiar with public policy issues. According to a 1993 study by Steven J. Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen, college graduates are 16.6 percent more likely to vote in presidential elections than those who have no more than an eighth-grade education. The poor are also more likely to be young and unmarried, other factors that correlate with low turnout.

Moving beyond socioeconomic influences, the picture gets more complicated. Political alienation, changing campaign tactics, and the decline of parties each play a role in falling participation among low-income Americans. Measuring these factors with any precision is difficult. Alienation is clearly the most important of the three; the literature on voting stresses that feelings of "political efficacy" are centrally related to participation. People are more likely to vote if they think that people like them can influence what the government does. Numerous studies confirm that the poor and less educated believe in their own political efficacy less than wealthier Americans do. This is hardly surprising.

Yet being poor and living in an inner city doesn't guarantee low electoral participation. Historically, different minority groups have viewed the franchise in different ways, with blacks most likely to invest voting with symbolic importance and see it as a path to improved circumstances. In Los Angeles and New York, poverty rates for both blacks and Hispanics are extremely high, yet blacks are registered and vote at higher rates than other poor minorities. Poor Asians have even lower registration rates than Hispanics. Variation also exists between different cities and different neighborhoods within the same cities. In a 1997 study of voting in New York City, political scientist David Olson documents wide variation in turnout among poor people. Olson suggests that "neighborhood stability" is critically important in predicting turnout. Homeowners and long-term residents, says Olson, are more likely to vote than people who are equally poor but who rent and have a less permanent connection to their neighborhood. Similarly, Jeffrey Berry, Kent Portnoy, and Ken Thomson argue in a 1991 essay that feelings of efficacy among the urban poor are closely related to the sense of community in the neighborhoods in which they live. A 1993 study by the same scholars showed that government efforts to involve city residents in the political process by creating strong "participation structures" also affect feelings of efficacy among the poor. Likewise, churches and political machines can cultivate a sense of political empowerment. Some inner-city black churches have made politics a central focus of their activities, and the leader who plays both political and religious roles is a familiar sight in inner cities. Contemporary urban political machines are often based in social-services empires and are well poised to mobilize poor supporters.

Besides the influence of such institutional arrangements, interest in politics varies widely from election to election, with certain candidates and elections triggering far higher levels of participation by the urban poor than others. All potential voters, regardless of income, are more likely to go to the polls if they strongly prefer a given candidate or view the election as important. Likewise, all voters are more likely to vote if they are directly contacted by a political party or candidate. Finally, electoral participation is affected by the ease with which poor urban voters can get registered and the information that is provided to them about voting—although how much these factors matter is a source of some controversy, since voting has declined over recent decades even as administrative obstacles to participation have dwindled.

In sum, nonvoting among the urban poor is neither an untreatable disease nor one that can only be mitigated by addressing its root cause, poverty. America's least enfranchised citizens have been, and can be, mobilized in large numbers. To understand better what works and what doesn't in getting these citizens to vote, it is instructive to look closely at recent electoral developments in three cities.


New York, Miami, and San Francisco could hardly be more different from one another. Yet in all three cities one finds wide variations in the voting behavior of poor people—from election to election and from neighborhood to neighborhood—and clear indications as to why these variations exist.

For the most part, voting rates and income correlate with near mathematical certainty in all three cities. Matching up census tract data from 1990 and turnout re ports at the precinct or assembly district level, a clear pattern is evident that parallels national trends: the poorest registered city dwellers vote by 15 to 25 percentage points less than the wealthiest. In some cases, these gaps are eerily consistent. For example, 1992 turnout in one of San Francisco's poorest neighborhoods, Visitacion Valley, was 24 percent lower than that of one of the city's wealthier neighborhoods, Pacific Heights. Four years later, in 1996, the gap between the two neighborhoods was exactly the same. Moreover, the gaps between rich and poor participation in San Francisco closely match those found 3,000 miles away—between New York neighborhoods such as Harlem and the Upper East Side, or between Bedford Stuyvesant and Park Slope. (The gaps tend to be equally wide during congressional elections and mayoral races.) These data, of course, simply confirm what we already know about voting gaps between different classes. More interesting to consider are variations among the urban poor.

The Miami neighborhoods of Liberty City and Overtown share many characteristics. Both are predominantly black and extremely poor. The unemployment rate in each is far above the citywide average, while rates of high school graduation are far below average. According to the 1990 census, Liberty City and Overtown are home to the two poorest population tracts in all of Dade County—areas where median household income was then just over $10,000. But here the similarities end. Once the center of black Miami, Overtown was effectively destroyed as a neighborhood when urban renewal projects crisscrossed it with highways and overpasses. Several thousand families still live in Overtown, but most other poor blacks migrated to Liberty City long ago. While Overtown is something of a no-man's-land, Liberty City is one of Miami's major neighborhoods.

The contrast in electoral participation between Liberty City and Overtown is striking. In the 1996 election, the two poorest precincts in Liberty City had a turnout rate of 54 percent of registered voters—13 points below the average turnout in Dade County, but 6 points higher than the national average. The picture was very different in Overtown. In Overtown's poorest precinct, only 15 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls, the lowest rate anywhere in Dade County. In Overtown's next poorest precinct, turnout was higher but still only 32 percent. And this gap was no one-time fluke: during the 1994 election, turnout in Overtown's poorest precinct also lagged nearly 35 points behind turnout in Liberty City's poorest precinct.

San Francisco also shows major discrepancies among poor neighborhoods. Visitacion Valley, a ghetto located far from downtown, is the poorest black neighborhood in San Francisco. Across the city, near the bustle of the financial district, is Chinatown, a neighborhood with equally intense poverty. In the 1996 election, turnout in Visitacion Valley as a whole was 41 percent, and this neighborhood contained the precinct with the lowest turnout rate in all of San Francisco, with only 21 percent of voters going to the polls. In Chinatown, however, registered voters participated at rates above the national average, with 54 percent going to the polls. In 1994, the participation gap between the two neighborhoods was equally high.

Because of the difficulties of estimating what percentage of eligible adults in a given neighborhood are registered to vote, comparisons of turnout rates are an imperfect means of determining overall levels of electoral participation. If national patterns hold in San Francisco, the blacks of Visitacion Valley are probably registered at higher rates than the Asians of Chinatown, meaning that the gaps between participation rates in the two neighborhoods may not be as great as they seem; indeed, they may even run in the opposite direction. But the basic fact remains that major differences exist in the voting behavior among San Francisco's poor registered citizens. Clearly in this city, as in Miami, neighborhood's impact on participation can be more powerful than that of socioeconomic status. For all their differences, San Francisco's Chinatown and Miami's Liberty City are both more cohesive and viable neighborhoods than the marginal areas of Overtown and Visitacion Valley. David Olson's study of voting in New York reaches a similar conclusion. "A low turnout rate is often a sign of an unstable neighborhood," he observes. Olson's work is of particular value because it controls for ethnicity and looks at several different elections.

Both the competitiveness of elections and the characteristics of the candidates also greatly affect turnout among poor urban voters. The same is true among all voters, and the reasons are obvious enough. It's hard to get excited about voting if the outcome of an election seems preordained or if you don't feel that any candidate speaks to your concerns. Poor voters were more aroused by the close 1992 race between Bush and Clinton than by the 1996 election, but so were rich voters.

In San Francisco, turnout in Visitacion Valley was seven percentage points higher in 1992 than 1996; the difference in Pacific Heights was identical. The story is much the same for presidential versus nonpresidential elections. East Harlem voters participated at a much lower rate in the 1997 mayoral election than the 1996 presidential election, but so did voters from the Upper East Side.

Yet some electoral contests mobilize poorer urban voters at higher rates than better-off voters. In New York City, Jesse Jackson's candidacy during the 1988 Democratic presidential primary particularly raised turnout among poor black voters. A few months later, however, during the lackluster general election that pitted Dukakis against Bush, whites voted at much higher rates than blacks did. The 1989 mayoral candidacy of David Dinkins also had a mobilizing effect among black New York voters. Blacks voted at a higher rate than whites in the primary contest between Koch and Dinkins. Later, during the general election between Giuliani and Dinkins, there were record turnouts in such poor neighborhoods as Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. A similar phenomenon occurred in the 1997 elections. During the September primary, with Reverend Al Sharpton in the race, turnout of registered voters in poor neighborhoods like Central Harlem and East New York was comparable to that in wealthy liberal neighborhoods such as the Upper West Side and the West Village. Indeed, the impoverished assembly district covering upper Har lem and Washington Heights had the highest turnout in the city. Yet two months later, during the general election, poor neighborhoods voted at significantly lower rates than wealthier neighborhoods did. Central Harlem, which had turnout rates three points higher than the Upper West Side during the primary, had a turnout ten points lower during the general election.




There is good news and bad news in the large variations in the voting behavior of the urban poor. The good news is that these voters are not uniformly indifferent: they can be aroused to participate at levels comparable to other voters. The bad news is that no simple remedy can raise voting rates.

As a matter of either activism or policymaking, it is no easy feat to create cohesive neighborhoods and strong "participation structures" or to otherwise increase feelings of political efficacy among the urban poor. As a matter of partisan political strategy, there are costs that come with appealing to the urban poor by running candidates that excite them, tailoring policy platforms to their interests, or expending campaign resources to contact them. In contemplating the prospects for reclaiming America's abandoned urban voters, the pitfalls and promises of both policy proposals and political approaches must be clearly understood.

Increasing the political efficacy felt by the poor is difficult but not impossible. Organizations like the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), and United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO) have been doing such work for more than two decades and have scored some impressive victories. Perhaps most notable among these is the key role that COPS has played in increasing the political involvement of poor Hispanic citizens, especially in San Antonio. The basic approach of community organizing groups is to empower poor people by helping them to achieve victories that directly affect their neighborhoods and thus to see that political involvement is not pointless. Getting the poor into the habit of voting is one long-term aim of this strategy.

Organizing efforts also target particular elections and issues. In 1996, for example, the IAF joined up with eight other community groups in New York City in an effort to raise participation among poor voters in the presidential election. Organizers got 23,000 people to pledge that they would vote in November and used a legion of neighborhood "captains" to ensure that those who had pledged actually made it to the polls. In Boston, the group Voter Power goes into communities and involves people in an issue that they can win, so they will see the fruits of their labor. Voter Power also seeks to establish an organizing infrastructure that can keep potential voters engaged and informed. Part of the idea is that voter mobilization is like marketing: multiple contacts are needed to educate and involve people in politics.

Community organizing efforts to increase electoral participation often do work, but they have limited potential to raise turnout dramatically among the urban poor. While the IAF's 1996 effort in New York was a major undertaking that required far-reaching cooperation with other groups, its contribution was a drop in the bucket in an election where more than a million poor people didn't vote. In recent years, Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns have demonstrated a more successful model for mass mobilization. These efforts gave poor citizens the sense of participating in a historic moment. New voters registered and voted in huge numbers. Jackson was particularly successful in energizing inner-city churches to play a role in registering people and getting them to vote on election day. Unfortunately, the Jackson campaign's gains proved difficult to sustain. In New York, Jackson's 1988 campaign helped to lay the groundwork for David Dinkins's mayoral victory in 1989. But four years later, Dinkins lost to Giuliani by a mere 57,000 votes as large numbers of Jackson voters stayed away from the polls.

General efforts to register new voters can also have an impact on turnout rates among the poor. The Southwest Voter Registration Project, founded in 1974, has probably been the most successful program for enfranchising poor people since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. SVREP often works alongside COPS and UNO, but it also has conducted more than 1,000 registration drives in over 200 communities in 14 states. In his 1993 study of political life among Mexican Americans, Peter Skerry suggests that SVREP "deserves credit for most of the increase in Hispanic voter registrations nationally over the past fifteen years."

Of course, the most important recent development in the area of voter registration has been the 1994 National Voter Registration Act, popularly called "Motor Voter," which enables people to register during the course of routine government transactions such as applying for public assistance or a driver's license. At this point, the jury is still out on how Motor Voter will affect participation by the poor [see Marshall Ganz, "Motor Voter or Motivated Voter?" TAP, September-October 1996]. Recent studies suggest that many of the citizens registered through Motor Voter have not voted. Overall, the fall in voter turnout in the 1996 election suggests that political motivation is more important than simple registration. At the same time, a true test of Motor Voter's impact will not be seen until there is a competitive and exciting election. In addition, there is no question that by enlarging the base of registered voters among the urban poor, Motor Voter provides a boon to both long-term community organizing efforts and ad hoc mobilization campaigns. If fewer resources need to be spent registering people, more can be used to get them to the polls.

Beyond Motor Voter, it is possible to imagine other measures to increase the turnout rate among the urban poor. Foremost among these are electoral reform initiatives such as public financing of campaigns, which would make it easier for leaders from poor city neighborhoods to run for office. Other often discussed steps for increasing turn out in the United States overall include mandatory voting laws of the kind that exist in Australia; allowing people to vote by phone or computer; holding elections on weekends; and making election day a national holiday. This last possibility could be implemented by moving Veterans Day from November 11 to the first Tuesday of every November and redubbing it Democracy Day. (After all, this is what our soldiers were fighting for.) Alternatively, shifting Martin Luther King Day to election day would be a fitting way to honor his legacy.

Efforts to register, empower, and mobilize poor urban voters can all yield results. Yet to be truly transformative, these approaches must be linked to a political strategy by the Democrats to consistently reach out to the urban poor. (Republicans have shown little interest in these voters.) Such a strategy carries major risks, but it also is crucial for stemming mounting erosion of the Democratic Party's electoral base.

Whether at the national or the local level, the Democratic Party faces two disincentives to focusing heavy attention on poor urban residents. First, finite party resources are most effectively deployed to woo citizens with a proven track record of voting. In tight elections, pursuing poor nonvoters is difficult to defend when resources are urgently needed to win or consolidate the support of more reliable (and wealthier) voters. Second, igniting the enthusiasm of poor urban voters requires addressing their concerns; yet doing so may alienate other voters. In national and state politics, suburban and rural voters now hold the keys to electoral victory. These voters are often not sympathetic to proposals for aiding the urban poor—or for aiding cities at all. In city politics, the decisive swing voters are often middle-class citizens anxious for reform and weary of taxes—hardly the audience most receptive to calls for expanding public services or benefits for the urban poor.

These conditions have produced a standard game plan for Democratic politicians at all levels in recent years: do the absolute minimum to shore up support of base Democratic constituencies in the cities, while targeting appeals at those voters who might defect to the Republicans. The result is the vicious circle mentioned at the outset of this article: the Democrats neglect poor urban residents because they don't vote in great enough numbers to wield electoral clout, and the risk of courting them seems to outweigh the gain. Feeling neglected, these citizens see little reason to participate in a system that does not address their concerns. Centrist Democrats may be able to live with this state of affairs, but the party's liberal wing has historically relied upon urban voters for much of its support. As this base shrinks in relation to the rest of the electorate, strategies to awaken dormant urban voters will become more important to liberal Democrats. The challenge of addressing the needs of poor urban residents without alienating more moderate Democratic constituencies has been discussed often in these pages. That challenge breaks into three parts.

First, new progressive initiatives should offer benefits to the poor and middle class alike. Poor urban voters, as well as better-off suburbanites, worry about health care, public education, and child care. Thus, for example, the Democratic "family populism" sketched out by Theda Skocpol and Stanley Greenberg is likely to resonate with both kinds of voters [see "Democratic Possibilities: A Family-Centered Politics," TAP, November-December 1997]. Second, creative approaches are needed to bridge the divide between cities and suburbs, illuminating the ways that the economic well-being of each is tied to the other and crafting new political alliances to address problems at a regional level. Especially worthy of attention are the proposals of urban planner Myron Orfield, which focus on building common cause between central cities and the older, inner suburbs that are closest to them [see Robert Geddes, "Metropolis Unbound: The Sprawling American City and the Search for Alternatives," TAP, November-December 1997; and Karen Paget, "Can Cities Escape Political Isolation?" TAP, January-February 1998]. Finally, Democrats must continue to refine and advocate a range of ideas for addressing urban poverty that do not hinge on government largesse. These include developing compacts with nonprofit organizations and the private sector to build low-income housing; creating special funds to dispense loans to small businesses; and establishing enterprise or empowerment zones to attract new investment to impoverished areas.

There are no silver bullets that can slay electoral estrangement in the inner cities. But this estrangement need not remain an immutable feature of American politics. If political leaders pay attention to neglected urban voters, chances are greater that these voters will pay attention to them. Above all, we need public ideas and candidates who inspire poor people to believe that politics can make a difference in their lives.

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