Monday morning and it is a fairly bleak news day, the kind that makes it easy to doubt our power and the possibility of change. I am not going to dive into the bleakness or take on each of today’s headlines. Instead, I am going a little deeper by giving you a slight preview of something I’ve been working on.
Last week, the Census released their annual voter’s survey. After every federal election, the Census goes through voting records and polls voters to get a sense of who voted in the election. Late April/early May is when they release their findings. For people like me – political reporters, campaign strategists, political scientists, etc. – the day the data is released is like Christmas. Hours and days are spent pouring over the data to pull insights from data on who voted, figuring out what all this says about the present and what it might mean for the future. A few things, I’ve found:
- We know that there was record turnout in the November 2020 election and that is impressive by itself. However, what is more impressive is that there was high turnout across all demographic groups, turnout that even set some records. No matter voters’ race, ethnicity, gender or age, people voted in percentages not seen for decades or, in a few cases, ever.
- The biggest jump in participation from 2016 to 2020 came from Hispanic (I am using the Census’ terms), Asian, and age 18-24 voters.
- Young voters set a record. For the first time, more than 50% of eligible voters 18-24 voted. The exact percentage is 55.4%. This is a huge deal. For years, hell decades, the youth vote was in the 30 and 40 percentiles. This jump is not a fluke but is part of an upward trend that started about 2008, with Obama’s first presidential run.
- (Note: An eligible voter is a US citizen over 18, who has retained their voting rights. A registered voter is an eligible voter who is currently registered to vote. This distinction is crucial, especially in looking at data like this or trying to figure out political/election polls. One reason why the distinction is important is because the percentage of registered voters who vote is extremely high, while the percentage of people eligible to vote who vote is 50% or lower.)
- Stereotypes often hide truths about people. The Asian American “model minority” stereotype makes it easy to believe that Asian Americans are super engaged in the political system. Not so when it comes to voting. Typically, Asian Americans have registration numbers that mirror Hispanics – somewhere between 35 and 45% of their voting eligible population. However, 2020 saw Asian (and Hispanic) registration numbers creeping into the high 40s, which is good.
- Black and white voters pretty much participate at the same rate, with registration numbers in the low 60 percentile. However, Black voters see bigger registration numbers year after year than white voters. Although Black voters make up less of the overall population than white voters, politically African Americans have more impact than their numbers suggest (which, given all the crap Black Americans are challenged with, shows how entrenched white supremacy is in this country).
- What about voter suppression? Good question. No doubt that voter suppression laws impact voting, though not like we think they do. The key to voter suppression is not stopping people at the ballot box, but keeping them out of the registrars’ office. The data tells us why: If you are registered to vote, there is a 90+% chance – no matter who you are – that you will vote. So, while voter ID and other stuff can discourage people who are easy to discourage from voting, the key to suppressing the vote is preventing people from registering and purging registered voters from the voting rolls. That right there is the battle.
- Although this battle is taking place behind the scenes, it is not one that Republicans are winning, not if the data is correct. Organizations like Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight are very effective in educating and arming voters with the information they need to make sure that they are registered and to navigate the obstacles that Republicans put in their way. We saw that Georgia and Arizona, two states with harsh voter suppression laws, both of whom went Democratic in 2020.
- The success of Fair Fight and others in arming voters with tools and information to subvert suppression is why the Republicans are trying to give state legislatures the power to overturn elections. It is also why buried in these suppression bills are new ways to purge voting rolls.
I am not one who believes that “demographics is destiny.” Population shifts alone do not determine where our politics go. Our political destiny is reliant on participation. That said, there are two trends that, when looked at in tandem, are encouraging. The first is that over the last six election cycles, all demographic groups’ participation grew from election to election (presidential to presidential, midterm to midterm) at pretty much the same rate. The second is that the white population, which tends to vote Republican, is shrinking. Add the two and, if participation stays the same, African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, women, and young people will have more and more say in where this country is going.
Again, demographics is not destiny, which means that participation and encouraging engagement is key. Same goes with fighting cynicism. “Fortunately,” the Republicans’ insanity and destructiveness is doing absolutely nothing to keep Democratic voters from going cynical and refusing to engage. The opposite is happening.
Had Trump and the GOP gone silent, or at least started speaking in their inside voice, perhaps, now that we have a Democratic administration, everyone who loathes the Republicans would go on cruise control like they did under Obama. Instead, Republicans push their worst and their dumbest out front, while the party gets louder and more unhinged. Like dear leader Donald Trump, the Republicans seem to have absolutely no impulse control or boundaries. Add all that to the disaster of four years of Trump and it becomes really apparent that, for those of us who want a decent country, silence = death.
So, this is what we have: growing voter participation, a demographics shift, a clear and present danger on the right, and a slow shift in the nation’s political priorities to the left. We also have headlines that are pretty bleak. One of these pictures is wrong, right? Nope. As I’ve written before, change doesn’t happen in a straight line, nor does it happen in the best possible world. Change starts to occur when things seem the darkest, but only when we decide that we have had enough, something that seems to be happening now.
I’ll be writing more on the 2020 election demographics and what they say about California in Capitol Weekly.