Campaigners are making a final push to urge millions of poor and low-income Americans to cast their ballots in Tuesday’s presidential election, in the hope of unleashing their vast untapped political power, which could be decisive were they only to vote.
The effort, led by the Poor People’s Campaign in coalition with more than 200 national groups, is sending out last-minute appeals via text messages to more than 2 million eligible voters encouraging them to make their voices heard. The pent-up reserve of non-voting low-income Americans could, the organisers believe, determine outcomes in as many as 15 key southern and battleground states.
“We are calling on 2 million people to let them know what their power is and why they must be felt at the ballot box,” said Rev William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “If poor and low-wealth people match the voting rates of higher-income voters in 15 states, they can change the margin of victory in the presidential race and in Senate races.”
The effort in the dying days of the 2020 race is the culmination of years of struggle to mobilize politically the 40 million Americans who live in poverty in the US and the 140 million who are on low incomes. Within this huge electorate people tend to vote at a rate that is about 20% below that of their wealthier compatriots.
A study published by the campaign in August found that in 2016 some 34 million poor or low-income Americans who were eligible to vote sat out the election that put Donald Trump in the White House. That number comfortably surpassed the 29 million people in those income brackets who did vote.
When asked to explain why they chose not to participate in the democratic process, low-income Americans complained that candidates were ignoring the issues that meant most to them, such as a living wage and healthcare, and expressed skepticism that their vote would change anything. They also faced daunting barriers to voting such as illness, lack of transport and voter suppression.
Barber told the Guardian that low-wealth Americans were one of the few remaining areas of society where the electorate could still be expanded. If their political potential were realized, it would have big ramifications for the way the country was governed.
“Poor and low-wealth people hold the power to fundamentally shift public policy and the nature of politics in America. If they move, you could change the south, if you change the south you change the nation,” he said.
Barber added that issues that were currently marginalized within Congress such as the housing crisis, environmental justice, women’s rights, police brutality and voting rights, would all move center stage were this vast army of voters to begin marching.
The Rev Liz Theoharis, a fellow co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, told the Guardian that the final push was being focused on unlikely voters earning less than $50,000 a year in eight states – Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and North and South Carolina in the south and Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maine. In addition, some 1,000 people in 10 states were being trained as poll watchers to help protect voters from intimidation or voter suppression on election day.
In its study of the untapped power of low-income non-voters, the Poor People’s Campaign explored the three states that memorably handed Trump his victory in 2016 – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
In Pennsylvania, there were 1.2 million low-income people who were eligible to vote but did not do so; Trump won the state by just 44,000 votes. In Michigan, there were 980,000 low-income non voters; Trump won by 11,000 votes; and in Wisconsin there were 460,000; he won by 20,000 votes.
The Poor People’s Campaign aims to tackle the unfinished business of Martin Luther King in calling for a national moral revival in the US. It seeks to confront the interlocking injuries of poverty, racism, environmental discrimination and militarism by building up a power base for poor and impacted Americans.