Inequality is a pillar of American democracy. At the country’s inception, only land-owning white men could vote — 6 percent of the population — and since that unfortunate beginning to our “democracy,” there has been fight after fight for people’s right to vote. But among the variables often considered when we talk about voter suppression (race, gender, religion), one very important and insidious factor is missing, which is income.
America loves to pitch itself as a place where everyone has opportunities and all voices are given the same value, but as we all know that is so rarely how it works. The Semisovereign People, a book published in 1960 by political scientist Elmer E. Schattschneider, argues that inequality is a form of voter suppression. His reasoning is that economic inequality allows the wealthy to change the narrative to favor themselves, which gives an unknowing populace less motivation to participate in politics or vote. This idea connects to our modern perspective, where in the major news networks, massive coverage of Donald Trump allowed him to slowly be legitimized in the eyes of the public. The media does not inform the conversation, it decides what it is about.
But wealth inequality continues to increase, spiking recently to levels unheard of in recent decades — and today the coronavirus is leaving millions unemployed. So did this affect voting? A study published by the statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight analyzed 2020 polling data from across the country and found that as incomes decreased, so did voter turnout. Race is shown to exacerbate this effect. A 2016 survey of consumer finances found a startling disparity between Black and white families’ incomes. White families had a median net worth of $171,000 compared to $17,600 for Black families. This figure fits unsurprisingly well with FiveThirtyEight’s study, with Black and Hispanic voters voting less often than white voters.
COVID-19 made all this worse for the 2020 election, since going to the polls is a significant health risk for many. Even when you arrive at the polling place, the battle is not over. Many were forced to contend with unacceptably long lines. Voting by mail seemed risky to many people because Republicans continue to try and sabotage the election results. With all these obstacles, is it really a surprise that society’s most downtrodden are far less likely to vote in their own interests, or even at all?
So you may be asking, how can I help? In the Bay Area there are a variety of nonprofits working towards greater equality in the vote. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is a wonderful organization that works tirelessly to overcome voter suppression and have more of the country represented in our democracy. The number of people affected by this issue is far larger than many Americans realize, and just talking about and advocating for the importance of voting is a really great step in the right direction. We may not be able to solve these systemic evils overnight, but we can start by voting for candidates that aim to lessen the wealth gap and for propositions that give more people the right to vote.