Who voted and who couldn’t

November 15, 2016

Drew Robert Winter argues that Democrats who blame Trump's victory on third parties or voter miseducation are revealing their own ignorance about the lack of democracy.

IN THE wake of Donald Trump's presidential victory, Hillary Clinton's campaign and many of its supporters seem intent on blaming their loss on everybody but themselves and their candidate.

One target of progressive anger has been Jill Stein--in the face of all evidence. Even assuming for the sake of argument that all of Stein's voters would have gone for Clinton had the Green Party not run a campaign, those votes would have made up the margin of Trump's victory in only two states--Michigan and Wisconsin--not enough to have given Clinton an Electoral College victory.

Libertarian Gary Johnson garnered more votes than Stein, but there is no reason to think that all or even most supporters of the former Republican governor would have gone to Clinton had he not been in the race.

But the main target of liberal anger and anxiety in the days since the election has been the electorate. There are many serious questions about popular consciousness that are raised by Trump's victory, but many Clinton supporters are starting from an assumption that this country has a level of democracy that, I would argue, simply does not exist and never has.

Voters in North Carolina wait in line for hours to cast their ballots
Voters in North Carolina wait in line for hours to cast their ballots

Many have taken to social media lamenting that "half" of the U.S. is racist and sexist for voting for Donald Trump. First of all, out of a total population of 318 million people, only 232 million are eligible to vote. Of those, only an estimated 58 percent voted in the presidential election. Of that 58 percent, 47 percent voted for Donald Trump, which comes out to just 27 percent of whose who are eligible to vote and less than a fifth of the total population.

The point is not that racism and sexism only exist among small sections of the population--far from it. But we should be clear that blanket statements about Trump being chosen by "the American people" are also wrong.

The 2016 election was determined in large part by a major drop in voter turnout that crushed the Democrats, in a country where voter participation is already extremely low for a country that calls itself the "world's leading democracy."

Instead of focusing on increasing, systemic voter suppression, spiteful Democrats merely scolded Americans for not picking themselves up by their electoral bootstraps to do their--supposedly easy--civic duty. To borrow a term that Clinton supporters liked to throw at the Green Party, I charge that this overestimation of democracy is itself a product of privilege.

THE MAJORITY of people who didn't vote in this election are the opposite of the privileged who would be least affected by a Trump presidency, as so many liberal social media messages would have us believe.

Instead, low voter turnout is highest among those who are young, lower income and nonwhite. The reasons are complicated and compound each other, but there are some very obvious barriers--either from neglect or by design --that too often make the simple act of voting a combination of foresight, time, energy, financial security and even bravery -- especially for the marginalized people on whose behalf Democrats claim to be upset.

To begin with, having to register to vote is an unnecessary extra step that requires planning aheadby potential voters, whereas in countries like Sweden, voter registration is automatic. Americans who plan on voting from another state have to get their documentation in order months in advance to qualify.

Also unnecessary is America's penchant for holding elections on a non-holiday weekday. Getting time off work -- even being able to afford time off work -- is very difficult for many who live paycheck to paycheck, and requesting time off doesn't win them any favors from the boss.

It's not like people can just run out and vote on their lunch breaks either. This year, there were 868 fewer places to vote than there were in 2012, which was expected to mean longer lines and more hassle. A 2013 study by an MIT professor found that Black people waited on average twice as long as white people to cast their ballot.

In North Carolina, Republicans restricted early voting and closed polling places on Sundays, when Black churches organize voting drives. The state party even issued a press release gloating about how they were succeeding in reducing Black voter turnout.

Then there were the diabolical voter purges. Almost 6 million people can't vote because of state felony disenfranchisement laws. In Florida, almost one in four Black adults is disenfranchised. In Ohio, many Blacks and Latinos have been removed from voting rolls in what Republicans ironically claimed to be an effort to eliminate voter fraud.

Finally, there is the threat that showing up to a polling station could be met with intimidation, if not physical violence. Trump supporters intimidating voters were spotted all over the country, including one man in Texas wielding a pistol with a sign that read "Faggots Vote Democrat."

This country's long history of violence against Black people's attempts to vote, combined with the more recent violence of at Trump rallies, legitimatize many people's fears about exercising their right to vote.

ALL THESE factors came together in Michigan, where Trump secured a narrow victory with just over 16,000 votes. The base of the Democrats' support in the state is Detroit, where at least 12 precincts had broken machines, shortages of ballots caused delays (and people left without voting), and voters were turned away because they didn't have ID (even though this isn't required in Michigan). One poll worker told voters to go home if they didn't want to wait in line, and Trump supporters were seen intimidating voters in at least one polling site.

Yet of all the factors that could be blamed for Clinton's defeat, from racist voter suppression efforts to other obstacles to casting a ballot--not to mention a poor campaign strategy and candidate--many Democrats are choosing to blame the voters that it's their job to win.

This common liberal reprieve -- that the main problem with society is the population's "stupidity" and poor judgment -- rests on a combination of self-serving elitism and a startling naiveté about the lived experiences of many people. Deploying the rhetoric of "privilege" to explain these election results is as disconnected from the actual election numbers as it is steeped in a rose-colored ignorance about American democracy that is, itself, a product of privilege.

Green Party and non-voters may be easy targets for venting frustrations about the abhorrent misogynist who is set to be the next President of the United States, but that blame is ultimately punching down at those who seem malleable under a socioeconomic system that feels ever more futile to resist.

Greens and non-voters are not the enemy -- just as immigrants are not the enemy of working class whites who fear the loss of good-paying jobs.

If we want to achieve our dreams of social and economic justice, we have to stop preaching at the weak and marginalized, and focus on the larger socioeconomic forces -- including the American pretension of greatness--as the objects of our ire to be criticized and dismantled. We need to build organizations that can face off against large social institutions -- corporations; local, state and federal governments; and, yes, the Democratic Party.

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