Pay Attention to the Poor, New Study Says. They Could Decide November’s Election.


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By Michael McElroy

August 11, 2020

Poor People’s Campaign details potential of lower-income voters in NC for presidential, US Senate races.

Impoverished voters, who are often disenfranchised and neglected by candidates of both parties, could nonetheless “transform the electoral landscape,” a new study by a leading anti-poverty group suggests. 

The study, released on Tuesday morning by the Poor People’s Campaign, found that even modest increases in the voting rates of these poorest voters could “affect the outcome of 16 U.S. Senate elections and the presidential race” in November. 

The Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) commissioned the study, which was written by Robert Paul Hartley, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. It looked at voting data in national races from 1984 through 2018 and focused on lower income and poor voters, defined as people living at less than twice the federal poverty level, or $52,400 for a family of four.

According to its mission, PPC, once run by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., aims to “confront the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.” One of its current co-chairs, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, is widely known in North Carolina as the architect of the Moral Monday protests and, in 2016, gained national attention for his impassioned speech at the Democratic National Convention. 

The PPC does not endorse candidates, but it asks them to endorse their platform. The platform will help candidates reach these voters, the group says.

“It is well documented that low income voters are not as likely to show up at the polls,” the study states. But, if these voters voted at the same rates as the rest of the population, it adds, the total would “match or exceed recent election margins of victory.”

The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said in an interview on Friday, that in 2016, only 138 million people voted out of 225 million eligible voters.

“That is close to 100 million voters who stayed out of that election, and 29 million of them were poor or low-income,” she said.

That power remains untapped, Theoharis said. That’s because voters feel unheard by candidates who often mention the middle class, but rarely push aggressively for living wage legislation or other issues most important to this bloc. Some also feel that even if they did vote, the votes wouldn’t matter and the candidates wouldn’t care.

“Both major parties in this country are guilty of not meeting the needs and not speaking to the issues and not putting forth policies that are solutions to the problems poor and low-income people are facing,” Theoharis said.

The mistake that politicians, the media, and the public at large make, Theoharis said, is thinking that the issues important to poor people have no effect on the rest of the population. 

“In this pandemic, you can see that low-income issues are everyone’s issues now” with health insurance losses, looming evictions, and joblessness spread across the population, she said.

Many of those critical issues have gone unaddressed, she said, because they were ignored by politicians when viewed solely as poor people’s problems.

A politician should know, she says, that if you “organize policies around those at the bottom and the most marginalized, that actually benefits everybody.” 

Poorer Voters Can’t Be Ignored 

The policies and agendas put forth by the group have the power to lure this missing voter bloc, she said.

The study cites Kentucky, where the Poor People’s Campaign and other anti-poverty groups have been organizing for years. 

In this decidedly red state, low-income eligible non-voters make up 20% of the overall electorate. A Democrat who embraced many of the ideas expressed in the PPC platform beat the Republican incumbent governor in 2019. The winner, the then-state attorney general Andy Beshear, took several counties the previous governor had won in 2015. 

The margins were slim; he won by only 5,000 votes statewide. 

In North Carolina, lower-income people who are eligible to vote but typically don’t make up 13% of the total electorate, the study says.

If just 19% of those people were to vote, the number could exceed recent margins of victory in NC’s national elections. 

Theoharis says that if candidates embraced the extensive platform set forth by the Poor People’s Campaign,  which includes demands to fully restore the Voting Rights Act, provide adequate funding for polling places, enact living wage laws, and expand Medicaid throughout the country, then they would have a great shot of luring those new voters. 

The feeling that candidates are not listening to their needs is a big reason lower income voters stay away, the study states.

The study looked at voting data from 1996 to 2018. Of all the eligible nonvoters over that span of time with incomes at at twice the federal poverty line, 24% said that they didn’t vote because they didn’t like the candidates or issues, or were not interested, or thought their votes wouldn’t matter. 

That figure, however, matches that of other nonvoters bringing in more money. Many demographics have a history of forsaking the vote, young people for example. The numbers taken together paint a clear picture at the very real obstacles poor people face to exercise their rights to vote.

Twenty nine percent of wealthier respondents, for example, cited being too busy to vote, compared to 22% of low-income voters.

Being too busy, however, usually means something different to rich people than it does to poor and lower-income people. Poorer people are more likely to be working several jobs. Jobs that don’t allow for breaks to wait in voting lines, which are often longer in poorer neighborhoods. Transportation issues, illness, registration problems, these barriers have all weakened the voting power of lower-income people, Theoharis said. 

“These barriers combined with folks who are not excited because they are convinced that politicians don’t care about their issues, are just forms of voter suppression,” she said.

Suppression efforts, vestiges of Jim Crow, were born out of the fear that poor people, despite their divisions, would unite and vote around an agenda, Theoharis said. This shows not the bloc’s weakness, but its power.

Barriers to Voting

Theoharis said the Poor People’s Campaign has reached out to the RNC and the DNC to ask them for time to pitch the platform to their committees.

Only the DNC has responded, Theobaris said.

Cardinal & Pine reached out to several NC officials and candidates seeking comment on whether the campaigns were increasing their outreach to low-income voters. We sent messages to Tim Wiggington, press secretary of the NC GOP; Adam Webb, press secretary to US Senator Thom Tillis; and to Kate Frauenfelder, press secretary to Cal Cunningham, Tillis’ Democratic opponent and poll leader in the November election. None of the messages were returned.

Still, Theoharis sees progress.

“There is more of a concentration of people starting to talk about these issues. You have to shift the narrative to be able to impact policy and elections. We have to do a lot more of it, but it’s encouraging.”


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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