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Explainer: Why Don't Both Parties Search for New Voters?

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'I Promise to Vote' pins.

Here is a number on which to chew: seventy three million. This week we found out that’s how many eligible voters are not REGISTERED to vote in the United States! For months I have been asking both Democrats and Republicans here in Iowa and also my many contacts across the country “Why aren’t you spending all those hundreds of millions of dollars on registering voters?”

In Iowa we are flooded with so many political TV ads that stations no longer have empty space for PSA’s, those Public Service Announcements we all love to hate.  I have not met a single person who can stand the endless flood of appeals by the American Petroleum Institute, opaque political action committees, and the “clean” coal industry telling us they are “and energy voter” and obviously asking people to vote for the deregulating Republicans.

So why has neither party gone out to find and register those 73 million unregistered voters?

The surprising answer is UNCERTAINTY. Party operatives have privately shared with me that it’s too risky because you may be registering people for the other party. So until the data mining and metrics are much more reliable, where you can actually target “your” supporters and bypass “theirs” the parties prefer a much smaller voting public (smaller by 75 million Americans) and work on two things.

First, identify likely voters and targeting them with advertisement and voter mobilization. Making sure that reliable voters are sent absentee ballots as well as offering a ride to the polling place for those who don’t have transportation. 

Second, try to discourage voters from the “other” party from exercising their vote. There is NO doubt that many states have passed laws that are intended to discourage selected groups from registering or voting. All of this is rolled out under the guise of “ballot security” or preventing illegal, unqualified voters from participating in the political system.

To give you some perspective on what this actually looks like, consider these numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau 

- Maine and Washington experienced voter turnout greater than 55 percent. Fewer than 40 percent of citizens in Texas reported voting.

- The most common reason people did not vote was they were too busy (27 percent). Another 16 percent felt that their vote would not make a difference.

- Homeowners were more likely to register and vote than renters; 74 percent of homeowners were registered to vote and 68 percent actually voted; 61 percent of renters were registered and 52 percent voted.

- People with at least some college education made up 68 percent of voters. Individuals without a high school diploma comprised 6 percent of voters.

- Veterans were more likely to vote (57 percent) than nonveterans (44 percent).

- People living in families who earned $100,000 or more were more than twice as likely to vote as those who lived with families earning less than $20,000 (61 percent and 30 percent, respectively)

I find it shocking that there isn’t more outrage at the profoundly undemocratic intentions behind both the lack of motivation to register the unregistered and deliberately making it more difficult for people to have access to the vote.

It seems to me that this is not just a smart political strategy by cynical campaign operatives. It’s the rotting away of American democracy. We are slipping away from the ideal of a fair and empowering citizenry and no one seems really upset. How frightening.