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After the presidential debate: How to close the voting gap among low-income people

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Much of this low turnout reflects a registration deficit. Nationwide, millions of citizens are not registered to vote or need to update their registrations. Low-income citizens and people of color are least likely to be registered. Current Census data reveal that, since at least 1980, white Americans have been more likely to be registered than their African-American, Latino, and Asian-American counterparts.

These registration and turnout deficits have many causes, including education and income disparities, state restrictions on registration, felon disenfranchisement (laws regarding felons and voter registration vary by state), and voters’ inflexible work schedules. And, unfortunately, it leads to policy-making that is often skewed toward the interests of the wealthy and the white.

Sadly, our dominant political parties are not equipped to solve this problem. Given relatively scarce resources, candidates cannot knock on every door. So they slice and dice the electorate based on demographics, party affiliation, and voting history, and focus on those “prime voters” who cast ballots in virtually every election. This creates a vicious cycle: Campaigns rarely contact unregistered people or infrequent voters, who in turn remain less likely to vote.

For decades, non-profit organizing groups have filled the gap by conducting non-partisan registration drives at places like universities, libraries, and shopping centers, and then mobilizing these new registrants. This work has an impact, and it continues.

These initiatives, however, are under serious attack in many states, where conservative legislators have championed voter identification laws and restrictions on registration drives under the mantle of eradicating voter fraud. Despite the fact that virtually all voter fraud accusations are baseless – as documented by the Brennan Center for Justice – voter ID efforts continue apace, jeopardizing the franchise of low-income people and voters of color.

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