The power of the poor at the polls: Study gauges impact of low-income voters

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Low-income voters could swing the U.S. Senate races in North Carolina and a dozen other states in November if they choose to cast ballots, a study concluded.

The study authored by Columbia professor Robert Hartley and released Tuesday by the Poor People’s Campaign compared the voting rates of people by family income.

It found that in the 2016 election, only 46 percent of people with a family income less than twice the federal poverty line voted while more than 67 percent of those making twice that much cast ballots.

Those non-voting low-income people make up a total of 34 million people.

The study found that based on data from 2008-16, if those poor and low-income constituents voted at the same rate that those who make more money do, they could meet or exceed the margins of victory from the midterm elections in 16 states.

There are Senate races this year in 13 of those states — including North Carolina, where Republican incumbent Thom Tillis is facing Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham in a heated campaign.

“Poor and low-income people can become a transformative new electorate,” said Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, the campaign’s co-chair and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary.

In North Carolina four years ago, Hartley found 13 percent of the total population of eligible voters were low-income people who did not vote.

The study breaks down the reasons why poor and low-income people give for not voting — and finds an average of 24 percent of those non-voters say they don’t like the candidates or feel their vote is inconsequential. 

Hartley says the data “is also not intended to diminish the impact of voter suppression that might target low-income or minority voters, nor the role of gerrymandering.”

A federal judge struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law in January, with U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Biggs citing “sordid history of racial discrimination and voter suppression.”

In contrast, the reason higher-income non-voters give most often is that they don’t have time.

In the study, Hartley interprets this as a message that “no one is speaking to (low-income people’s) issues and values.”

“Campaign policy proposals are typically targeted toward the middle class, and political debates spend a minority of the time on issues directly relevant to most lower-income voters,” he wrote.

The Poor People’s Campaign does not endorse parties or candidates and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a co-chair of the campaign and president of the state’s conference of the NAACP, says he wants to hold both Republicans and Democrats accountable.

“We are unleashing the power of the poor and low-income Americans,” he said. “Changing the political landscape is critical.”

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