Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Touch

The leaked video of a Romney fundraising dinner in Boca Raton says a lot about the state of our democracy. According to Romney, 47 percent of the country “will vote for the President no matter what” because they are “dependent upon government” and “pay no income taxes.” As a result, Romney dismisses nearly half the electorate, saying, “[M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat points out, whether or not Romney actually views half the country as unproductive moochers is beside the point. The remarks signify what Romney “feels his ‘clients’ in the Republican donor base want to be told about this election and what will inspire them to dig deep and give freely to his cause.” Those comments, Douthat says, “illuminate the way many well-off Americans feel about their less-fortunate fellow countrymen—and it isn’t a pretty thing to see.”

Campaigns oriented around a small subset of society distort public policy and lock candidates into positions that don’t serve the broader interests of the electorate. Most voters lack the means buy face-time. For many candidates, low-income voters are out of sight and, perhaps, out of mind, and that leads to candidates who are out of touch.

But Romney’s remarks go beyond run-of-the-mill distortion that is synonymous with our campaign finance system. In dismissing nearly half of the electorate, Romney’s remarks wink and nod towards vote suppression efforts around the country. If 47 percent of the electorate will support one party “no matter what,” then the best hope for the other party is for the election to be decided among the 53 percent.

Others have been more explicit. Conservative commentator Matthew Vadum wrote, “Registering them [the poor] to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals. It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country—which is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering welfare recipients to vote.”

The revelation that poor people (contrary, apparently, to all other voters) vote in their economic interest, leads Vadum to oppose policies that “empower” poor voters. A variation on this theme expressed by supporters of restrictive voting laws is that it should be difficult to vote. Onerous voter ID laws and curtailing voter registration, in Vadum’s words, help get the “burglary tools” (i.e. the ballot) out of poor voters’ hands.

This sheds considerable light on why elements of recent voting legislation, either by design or effect, especially impact the poor. Research by the Brennan Center shows that large rural concentrations of poor black voters in Alabama could have exceptional difficulty complying with the state’s voter ID law:

[I]n 11 contiguous counties in Alabama…all state driver’s license offices are part-time and are open only one or two days per week. More than 135,000 eligible voters live in these 11 counties. Nearly half of them are black, and the black poverty rate is 41 percent.

Voters in the Texas border region, which has a 22 percent poverty rate, oftentimes live hours away from the nearest ID-issuing office. When incidence of high poverty coincides with areas where ID-issuing offices have extremely limited hours or are geographically sparse, working class voters are disproportionately affected.

So, Mitt Romney’s comments demonstrate that the broken nature of our campaign finance and voter registration systems are really two sides of the same coin. Reform in both areas can bolster civic participation among and representation of more people in our democracy.

Low-income voters are less easily dismissed when the campaign finance system promotes giving from a diverse set of donors. New York City’s public financing system matches small donations with public funds at a 6-1 rate. This model narrows the influence gap between small and large donors and encourages candidates to merge fundraising with grassroots outreach so that they spend less time in the large donor echo chamber and more time with average voters.

It’s even easier for candidates to ignore large swaths of the electorate when significant barriers to voting exist. Combating vote suppressing laws and replacing them with reforms that bolster turnout across the board will make low-income concerns more salient in elections. Voter registration modernization, which places the onus on governments to ensure that every eligible voter is on the rolls, could lift many obstacles to voting in high poverty areas.

Greater democracy is the antidote to narrow-minded views on poverty and, one might argue, citizenship. Better democratic institutions may not change how all candidates think about people who are different from themselves, but they will raise the political costs of acting on those misconceptions. Moreover, reforms of this kind have the added benefit of embodying the values that the framers had in mind when they declared that all men, even those who aren’t invited to fundraising dinners, are created equal.