Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Harry Targ

I am visiting with a progressive friend in Wisconsin. Recently I asked him if Russ Feingold has a chance of being reelected to the Senate in the 2016 election. He said that many Feingold supporters did not vote in 2010, a non-presidential year. In addition, he said, some of them today do not even know that Feingold is not one of their senators. The lack of participation and awareness of who is or is not one of the state’s senators may have several explanations.

A long-held view of academic “experts” is that the information, awareness, and interest of most voters in politics are limited. This might be called the “ignorant voter model.” There may be some truth to this claim but it is a mistake to blame the voter without considering the context in which politics works.

Another explanation for the limited knowledge and participation of citizens in politics emphasizes the fact that for many citizens the electoral arena is seen as of limited consequence to people’s lives. Politicians run public relations campaigns. They lie. They make all sorts of promises. Both parties really stand for the same things. And, in the end, this view suggests, nothing ever changes.  This interpretation represents the “cynical voter model.”

A third model explains significant differences in voter participation to the differences in periodic elections. More voters turn out for presidential elections than off-year elections. Voters are least likely to go to the polls for primary elections, municipal and county elections, or elections for school boards.  This explanation constitutes a “selective voting model.” 

A fourth perspective emphasizes the lack of information, misinformation, and lies communicated by a media that is top-down, controlled by a handful of global corporations, and motivated primarily by commercial success. This explanation, “the media manipulation model,” does a better job capturing some of the context in which most people engage in or ignore politics but also is limited. 

Each of these perspectives has something to do with political behavior. Yes, some citizens are ill-informed.  Others are informed but cynical. Often voters have interests in some elections but not others. Still more true is the argument that Americans are barraged with 24/7 newscasts that ignore important stories, lie about them, or communicate information about violence, sexuality, and celebrities instead of information to get viewers or readers to buy products rather than to inform.

A fifth model, “the education for action model,” takes account of the four explanations above but has embedded within it the proposition that political actors can have some role to play in informing publics, convincing them that their cynicism is dangerous to their futures, and providing an understanding of what can be done politically to better serve their interests.

One example of the education for action model was developed by Dan Isaacson, publisher and editor of The Democratic Voter and The Enlightened Voter, monthly newsletters distributed to prospective voters in Precinct 4178, Palm Beach County, Florida (www.VoterEducation.net). 

He launched a voter education/participation project in 2014. He wanted to see if providing regular information about the electoral process, important issues, and candidate positions could increase voter participation in the precinct in which he worked as a Democratic Party organizer. 

Isaacson, the director of Project 4178, knew that face-to-face conversations with prospective voters were an ideal way to communicate information and to try to convince people to vote. But, in an average precinct (Isaacson’s consisted of 714 registered Democrats, 533 independents, and 636 Republicans), the possibilities of having meaningful dialogue about the political process seemed low. And television ads, robo calls, flyers, and other fleeting visual or oral forms of communication were usually ignored.  

As an alternative to standard campaign practices, Project 4178 began distributing monthly newsletters to voters registered as Democrats or Independents in the precinct. Additional newsletters were sent just before each of three elections. Registered Democrats received The Democratic Voter and Independents received The Enlightened Voter. These monthly newsletters clearly and concisely presented information about the election, candidates, and why voting was important. When e-mail addresses were available the newsletters were sent electronically; when not, they were sent by mail. 

The newsletters were guided by the need for “large print, frequent paragraphs, short sentences, easy reading level, eye-catching, bold typeface lead-in phrases to most paragraphs.” (The June, 2015 issue of The Enlightened Voter included articles from various sources on the low production of the Florida legislature, what would happen if women controlled the global economy, the impacts of for-profit college math courses, a museum devoted to the reexamination of slavery, the performance of Governor Scott, and data about voter participation of readers of the newsletter. It had an attractive eight-page layout and six talking points one from each of the articles that appeared in the issue).  

Comparing Precinct 4178 voter average with the average of turnouts in all other Palm Beach County precincts for a number of elections--municipal, judicial, and statewide--the differences in participation rates were stark. For example, turnout for municipal elections in March, 2014 was a third higher in Precinct 4178. Precinct 4178 turnout for an August, 2014 primary election was 71 percent higher than the average of other precincts. And for the gubernatorial race in November, 2014, Precinct 4178 had a 19 per cent higher turnout rate than the rest of Palm Beach County.

Along with building a data-base of voters in the Precinct, reaching out to independent voters, publishing a useful newsletter, Isaacson suggested that the experiment “demonstrated that the Voter Publications’ education tools increases unengaged-voter turnout by 50 % or more over the usual methods currently used (tv, radio, phone calls and door knocking ‘nagging’).” 

The Isaacson experiment raises several ideas of relevance to other progressives.

First, Project 4178 begins with a realistic assumption about the prospects of communicating with masses of voters in an effective way. Given available resources, intensive interactions with large numbers of voters and other potential activists is limited. Matching multi-million dollar campaigns based on advertising, robo calls, and influencing media content is virtually impossible. In fact, the millions spent on elections and issue campaigns do not appear to affect active voter participation, but rather induce non-participation.

Second, given limited resources and the forces arrayed against encouraging intelligent voting and other participation, only systematic, clear dissemination of information about the political process can yield a more informed citizenry and a politically active public. This may be relevant to those who are primarily engaged in revitalizing the electoral process but might also be relevant for those who wish to mobilize masses of people to fight racism, sexism, the military-industrial complex, the destruction of the environment, and efforts to destroy the labor movement. 

If the Project 4178 findings can be generalized from one locale to others, the main point would be that an effective campaign of political education matters. Communicating information increases a sense of political possibility, provides analyses about the direction the government and economy are headed, and what can be done to bring about change.