The recent special election votes in Virginia, New Jersey and even more recently, Oklahoma, gave Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans a sorely-needed infusion of hope. A lot can happen in a year, of course, but there are several promising omens for 2018 in the magnitude of the wins and the repudiation of divisive and ugly campaign tactics.
That said, I think the most important lesson–the most significant “takeaway”–has largely been overlooked, probably because it simply reinforces what has been conventional political wisdom for eons.
Elections are all about TURNOUT.
Democrats in Virginia won races for their House of Delegates despite running in massively gerrymandered districts, reminding us that the “art” of gerrymandering relies on previous voting patterns. When large numbers of citizens who haven’t previously voted cast their ballots, so-called “safe” districts are a lot less safe.
In a recent column for the Guardian, Rebecca Sollnit makes an important point. Reviewing the election that gave us Donald Trump, she suggests that his narrow victory was likely attributable to–and vindicated– the GOP’s intense and persistent emphasis on vote suppression tactics.
You can’t count the votes that weren’t cast, and you can make a case that the election was sabotaged without taking them into account. But when you add up the different means of disenfranchisement – voter ID laws and illegitimate enforcement of them, the Crosscheck program, voter roll purges, reduction of polling places, gutting the Voting Rights Act – you see that millions of poor, student and nonwhite voters were denied one of their basic rights as citizens, along with more than six million disenfranchised because of felony convictions.
That is a huge chunk of the electorate, and had half of them voted, it would have given us a wildly different outcome – in fact, it probably would’ve dictated significantly different campaigns and candidates.
Good government groups have brought lawsuits challenging most of these suppression mechanisms, and I am cautiously optimistic that at least some of those suits will succeed. But as helpful as that would be, the 2018 remedy lies elsewhere: in civic activism that vastly increases turnout, including in, but not limited to, the populations that have been the target of these suppression efforts.
Unlike countries like Australia, where there is mandatory voting, in the United States we rely on voluntary exercise of the franchise–and even where intentional efforts to suppress the vote are absent, we haven’t made voting easy or convenient. As a result, those of us who are focused upon ousting the corrupt and illegitimate cabal that is the Trump Administration face a daunting–but not insurmountable–challenge. We must register and turn out hundreds of thousands of previously absent voters.
Large turnouts have almost always favored Democrats. That’s doubly true in the Age of Trump. The big question–what we used to call the 64 Thousand Dollar Question–is whether we can sustain the remarkable increase in political and civic participation triggered by the results of the 2016 Presidential election.
Does the resistance have stamina enough for the long slog? Are volunteers prepared for the tedium of house-to-house registration and GOTV efforts? Will enough of us resist the normalization of the daily eruptions of thuggery and ignorant belligerence, and keep our eyes on the prize–the restoration of competent and ethical government?
A year can seem like an eternity, but a dogged and sustained effort that dislodges and replaces Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and gives us a sane cohort of lawmakers actually interested in the public good would be a wonderful reward for persistence–and the beginning of the end of an incompetent, shameful and destructive administration.