Study: Low-income voters could swing the election toward Democrats

    Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, speaks to States Newsroom reporters in August 2020.

    Democrats could win big dividends if they focused on getting low-income voters to the polls, according to a new analysis released Tuesday by the Poor People’s Campaign.

    The report, authored by Columbia University professor Rob Hartley, analyzes Census Bureau data from 2004-2016 and finds that if low-income voters had voted at similar rates to high-income voters, those new voters would have met or exceeded the margin of victory in the 2016 presidential race in 15 states, including Minnesota.

    In several states, including key swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, a simple majority of those new voters casting ballots for the losing candidate could have flipped the election results. Hartley pointed out during a news conference that low-income voters — those below twice the federal poverty line — currently vote at rates roughly 20% lower than higher-income voters, creating an opportunity to mobilize a large bloc.

    Low income non-voters list a number of reasons for not voting, according to the report: most significantly lack of time; lack of access due to illness or disability; and the feeling that none of the candidates in an election represent their interests.

    In addition to targeting voter suppression measures such as felony disenfranchisement, the Poor People’s Campaign argues that focusing on policies that combat poverty could bring these voters to the polls.

    “This report declares we are unleashing the power of poor and low-income Americans,” said Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, national co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “Poverty and low income are not marginal issues … it is not inevitable, it’s created by bad public policy.”

    The Campaign, which organizes locally across the country, is trying to build a multiracial coalition centered on issues that it says matter most to America’s poor: health care, and other social services and low wages. Barber suggested that were the Democratic Party to embrace such a political strategy, it could potentially turn staunchly Republican southern states blue.

    “The Senate is in play and poor folk have the power to make the play,” Barber said. “It is political suicide, it is politically foolish not to reach out to poor and low wealth people.”

    Campaign officials emphasized that the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic crisis has only broadened the tent of unemployed and uninsured Americans who could be persuaded by the Campaign’s message.

    “With this unemployment situation and people fighting for stimulus resources to come into our communities, …[we have] politicians that are antithetical to contributing resources that would actually sustain a family,” said Kentucky organizer Shelton McElroy.

    Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, McElroy charged, had fought against continuing the federal government’s extra $600 per week enhanced unemployment benefits.

    “We want to vote for people who actually hold our interests first in precedent,” he said.

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    Reformer intern Avi Waldman is a junior at the University of Chicago working on a degree in English language and literature. She edits and reports for the independent student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon. She previously interned at San Diego CityBeat. In her free time, she enjoys cross-country road trips and is a proud cat parent.