Under-participation by key progressive voting blocs takes a toll at the polls. (Flickr/N. Shepard)

Why Vote in 2014

As Ferguson shows, people need a reason to think their vote matters. Here’s one.

BY Joel Bleifuss

In Ferguson’s 2013 municipal elections, 6 percent of black registered voters cast ballots, compared with 17 percent of whites. On a national scale, a similar electoral scenario has played out, with similarly unfortunate results.

In Ferguson, Missouri, a town where 67 percent of residents are black and 29 percent white, five of the six city council members are white, as is the mayor. This white-dominated city government employs a police force in which 94 percent of the officers are white (50 out of 53).

How did this happen? In Ferguson’s 2013 municipal elections, 6 percent of black registered voters cast ballots, compared with 17 percent of whites.

On a national scale, a similar electoral scenario has played out, with similarly unfortunate results. In 2010, key progressive voting blocs—young people, single women, African Americans and Latinos—were underrepresented at the polls. Their alienation is understandable. People need a reason to think their vote matters. But the under-participation of these contingents has been disastrous.

In 2010, voters elected union-busting Republican governors and legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina—six swing states that went for Obama in 2008 and 2012 (the one exception being North Carolina in 2012). Should this 2010 midterm trend repeat itself in 2014, the consequences could be even more dire.

In the February 2013 In These Times cover story, Rob Richie, director of the electoral reform group FairVote, wrote about a GOP scheme to change the way Electoral College votes are allocated in swing states. At the time, three influential Republicans—Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and Michigan’s elections committee chair, state Rep. Pete Lund—had all expressed interest in distributing their states’ electoral college votes proportionally, rather than winner-take-all. That means that in a tight race like 2012, when these states swung Democratic, the Republican candidate would still receive almost half of the state’s crucial electoral votes. Had such a system been in place in 2012 in the above-mentioned swing states and Virginia, Romney would have won the Electoral College by 16 votes.

According to Richie, rumor has it that such an Electoral College switcheroo will occur at the end of 2014 in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Both Michigan and Pennsylvania have a history of lame-duck legislative activism. And since Democratic nominee Tom Wolf is favored to beat Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) in November, this year’s Pennsylvania lame-duck session will be the GOP’s one chance to change their state’s Electoral College rules without the threat of a veto.

Were this to go down, in a close 2016 presidential election the Democratic-leaning Michigan and Pennsylvania could vote blue and still swing the election to the Republican candidate. Once again, as in 2000, we could have a president who was elected by a minority of the voters—and a president who might well have the opportunity to appoint at least one Supreme Court justice.

For example, if Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg—who is 81 and has been treated for two types of cancer—decides to remain on the bench until her dying day (she shows no signs of stepping down), a Republican president elected in 2016 might be blessed with the opportunity to increase the court’s conservative majority of five to an unassailable six. That would give the GOP a lock on the Supreme Court for years to come.

The lesson: You get what you don’t vote for.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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