Only 36.4 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote in the 2014 midterm elections, and only 57.5 percent turned out to vote for president in 2012. We could say to ourselves this indicates a population that is uninterested in politics. We could say people are burnt out on the political process, or just can’t make time for a Tuesday at the polls. But a more comprehensive explanation starts with examining how much lower voter turnout really is. There are some exclusions that we aren’t noting when we do this math – namely that tens of millions of people who live and/or work in the US are not allowed to vote.
Let’s start with the largest number – those who are not allowed to vote because they do not hold official papers while living and/or working here. This means they are working without permit, residency or citizenship. It’s pretty much impossible to accurately figure this population, but it is by far the largest number on this list. The most conservative estimates are from the US government – 11.5 million in 2012 – though the number is most certainly far higher. Either way, there are tens of millions, and they join the estimated 13.1 million residents with papers (but who are not citizens) that are barred from voting.
Add to that, there are 2.3 million people who are currently incarcerated in the US. Except for those in Vermont and Maine, none of them can vote. In Puerto Rico, prisoners can vote, but then again, the entire population of Puerto Rico (3.54 million) is barred from voting at the national level.
When those convicted of felonies are released from the world’s largest prison system, they are not allowed to vote without waiting periods, bureaucratic paperwork, begging clemency – or, in some states, they are disenfranchised for life. As a result, 5.85 million additional persons who live in the US are not allowed to vote because they were convicted of a felony. For thirteen black men in this country, one is not allowed to vote because of a felony conviction. In some states, such as Florida (the third largest in the US), that number rises to one in five.
So, in adding up the most conservative estimates so far, that makes 36.3 million residents of the US who are unable to cast a vote this November. This leaves out the number of residents who are can’t vote because of laws designed to disenfranchise people of color and the poor, those who are de-facto disenfranchised via provisional ballot, among others. It also does not count the number of people who cannot make it to the polls on a Tuesday.
And, of course, it does not include the billions worldwide who live under political and economic policies implemented unilaterally by the United States, those who live under governments installed by the United States, or those who are occupied by the US armed forces.
If you notice, this disenfranchised population is made up almost entirely of those from the most vulnerable communities. In the US, voter turnout among those who are eligible correlates entirely to an individual’s income bracket.
chart from Demos– Why the Voting Gap Matters
I don’t want to estimate a final number to include all those kept away from the polls, but let’s go back to our low voter turnout. An estimated 128 million turned out for the last presidential election at 57%. That’s of a total 218 million who are eligible to vote under the law. Adding in the 35 million – deducting the number of minors under 18 included estimated around 1.3 million, including minors in Puerto Rico – who have been disenfranchised, the turnout drops to just about 50% using the most conservative numbers I’ve tallied.
In 2004, I worked to register voters in the state of Florida. Like the majority of the country – and the world – I despised George W. Bush for his brutal imperialist wars and his destruction of civil liberties. I hated what he stood for, and I hated what he was doing. I was told that the only way to change this was to get out the vote. If enough people voted, I was told, the country would change. I knocked on hundreds of doors for months trying to persuade people to register. Try as I might, and while I convinced some, many more turned me down. They were formerly incarcerated, people without papers, the poor and those who laughed when I suggested voting might change things for the better as they stood ankle-deep in their own flooded living rooms – 2004 was a big year for hurricanes in Florida.
And then, on election day, I watched as those who I’d successfully convinced to register were challenged by “poll watchers” and forced to cast provisional ballots.
When we speak about low voter turnout and political participation in the US, it’s necessary to include those who are forcibly excluded from voting. It’s worth it to ask why they are excluded, and who benefits by such policies. One of the major questions of NO PLATFORM is to ask people if they think US-style democracy is working for them. Do they feel like they’re included in governmental and economic decision making? For the more than 35 million residents disenfranchised, it will be a story worth telling.
NO PLATFORM is raising $13,500 to do 90 days on the road + report from outside both conventions in July. The KickStarter has five days left to go, and needs all the help it can get.