Getting the real America to the voting booth

Once it became clear that President Bush had been re-elected, the soul-searching and backbiting began almost immediately within the Democratic Party. Some characterized the party’s message as more of an attack on the president than a compelling vision of what the Democrats would do if they controlled the White House. Others bemoaned the Republicans’ advantage on cultural issues — in particular, the trifecta of guns, God and gays — and pointed out that voters citing “moral values” as their most important concern, the largest group in the electorate, overwhelmingly supported the president. The Democrats’ nominee, Sen. John Kerry, was also disparaged for his long-winded speaking style, disorganized campaign and patrician aura.

What the pundits have missed in this orgy of recriminations is that a majority of Americans actually would have preferred Sen. Kerry to be the next president. Those who voted, it is true, supported the president by a slim three-point margin, but those who voted do not accurately reflect America as a whole.

Let’s start with race. According to the most recent census estimates, America is about 68 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black and 4 percent Asian. The 2004 electorate, though, was 77 percent white, 6 percent Hispanic, 11 percent black and 2 percent Asian. Whites were therefore substantially over-represented in the voting population, while Hispanics and Asians were under-represented by approximately 50 percent. By my calculations, if the 2004 electorate had mirrored the nation’s real racial distribution, President Bush’s three-point win would have turned into a one-point Kerry squeaker.

The story is similar with income and geography. About 35 percent of American households make less than $30,000 a year, but only 23 percent of voters came from these households. Conversely, 22 percent of American households have incomes of more than $75,000 a year, but voters from these households constituted 32 percent of the 2004 electorate. If the voting population’s incomes had accurately reflected the general population’s incomes, Kerry would have won by almost two points. America’s population is also about 47 percent urban, 32 percent suburban and 21 percent rural, while the electorate this year was 29 percent urban, 46 percent suburban and 25 percent rural. If voters had hailed from cities, suburbs and rural areas in the same proportions as all Americans, the election would have been very close to a tie.

These statistics should send Democrats two important messages as they evaluate their party’s future in the wake of the 2004 elections. The first is that they need not overreact to the election’s adverse outcome. Though voters preferred President Bush to Sen. Kerry, the American people as a whole have not rejected the Democrats’ platform of fiscal responsibility, a more multilateralist foreign policy and greater attention to jobs and health care. The Democratic Party is not out of touch with mainstream America, and it need not abandon its positions on issues like abortion, the separation of church and state, and gay rights in order to win the public’s support.

The second message is that Democrats’ top priority in the years ahead must be to make the voting population look more like the general population. During campaigns, this means registering more poor, minority and urban people to vote. Groups like America Coming Together poured tens of millions of dollars into such efforts during this election cycle, but obviously more work remains to be done. Democrats should also focus on energizing their natural supporters, through both their rhetoric during campaigns and the policies they advocate the rest of the time, so that Democrat voters become more likely to go to the polls on their own.

Beyond voter registration and mobilization, Democrats should fight hard for structural changes to America’s voting system. They should support making Election Day a national holiday, so that all voters can cast their ballots without missing time at work. They should introduce legislation making voter registration automatic or mandatory, so that would-be voters do not find themselves frustrated on Election Day because of their failure to register in advance. And they should seek to nationalize voting rules and procedures, so that localized inefficiencies and partisan biases can be eliminated.

All of these steps will require persistence in the face of fierce Republican opposition. But the Democrats must persevere, because their other options are so much worse. If the Democrats cannot get the electorate in future elections to resemble the general population, they will be forced either to compromise core values in order to appeal to the skewed population of voters or to accustom themselves to losing elections despite being supported by a majority of the population as a whole. But if Democrats can heighten the correlation between voters’ and citizens’ demographics, they will dramatically improve their electoral chances — and, at the same time, win a great victory for democracy.



Nicholas Stephanopoulos is a second-year student at the Law School. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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