Bernie Sanders is taking fire for saying that he’s losing to Hillary Clinton in states with severe wealth gaps because “poor people don’t vote.”
Critics have branded him a sore loser, a fading candidate who blames his all-but-certain defeat on the poor instead of faulting his own campaign. That’s fair, to an extent. But it obscures the more important point: Poor people generally don’t vote, even if that’s not exactly why Sanders is losing.
About 75 percent of Americans in the lowest-income bracket didn’t vote in the last midterm elections, according to the fact-finding news site PolitiFact. A 2015 Pew Center survey found that just 20 percent of the least financially secure among us were “likely voters” in 2014, compared to nearly 70 percent of the most financially secure citizens.
The fact that the poor are largely absent from the democratic process blemishes our self-image as the globe’s standard-bearer for democracy. The Pew Center last year ranked the United States 31st out of 34 developed nations in voter turnout.
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Like most embarrassing facts, we prefer to ignore this one. So when a presidential hopeful blurts out that the poor don’t vote, as Sanders did over the weekend, the first question is whether he’ll suffer political fallout from such an indelicate statement. But that misses a more important point. Why, in a representative democracy run “of the people, by the people and for the people,” aren’t we more troubled by the fact that our most vulnerable citizens are sitting on the sidelines of the nation’s political conversations?
We should be making it easier to vote, not harder, as North Carolina did with its 2013 voting reform law. (A federal judge’s ruling late Monday upheld that law and dismissed all claims against it. Opponents vowed to appeal).
We should be following the example set by states such as Oregon and California, which have adopted automatic voter registration laws. They aren’t throwing open the doors to rampant voter fraud. Both of those states require people to show a birth certificate, passport or other proof of citizenship to obtain a driver’s license.
Voter turnout in the 2014 elections was the worst in 72 years. Some 66 million eligible voters earning less than $50,000 annually failed to go to the polls that year. Even in 2012, a presidential election year, 47 million low-income Americans failed to vote.
Why, given such numbers, do we still expect our government’s priorities and policies to reflect accurately the will of most Americans? Why has it taken so long to recognize the huge disconnect between our government’s priorities and the needs of the working poor?
We shouldn’t be surprised at how well Sanders and Donald Trump have competed. They’ve brought disenfranchised and discouraged voters back into the political conversation.
But if we don’t build on their success, the next generation of protest campaigns could well make the antics of a Donald Trump seem mild by comparison.