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Why Bernie Should Launch a National Voter Registration Drive

Bernie Sanders should immediately launch a national voter registration drive. At stake is not just his electoral chances but whether his campaign can help shift power from elites to the disenfranchised.

Sen. Bernie Sanders listens to a question as he speaks at the Democratic presidential candidates NALEO Candidate Forum on June 21, 2019 in Miami, Florida. Joe Skipper / Getty

On a Saturday afternoon in 2016, ten days before the New York State primary, a few labor and immigration activists spoke at a rally for Bernie Sanders in front of the United Palace at 175th and Broadway, a landmarked theater where the evangelist Reverend Ike once preached. About twenty-five Bernie enthusiasts showed up. After a few speeches, a couple of campaign operatives invited us to download a voting app that showed the addresses of registered Democrats in northern Manhattan. We divided into teams, and began canvassing the Washington Heights neighborhood.

One week after the rally in front of the United Palace, Sanders held a campaign event inside the ornate theater. By then a group of organizers had emerged organically, beyond the purview of the campaign office in Harlem. We called ourselves “Uptown for Bernie.” Some of us were younger and some were older. A few were seasoned political campaigners. But most had never worked for a campaign or voted for a candidate (as opposed to against someone). A handful had never even voted before. There were women and men, Catholics and Jews, LGBTQ people and straight people. Some of us were working class, many were students. There were musicians and writers and a few young professionals; and even two Dreamers brought to the United States as babies that were still barred from voting.

Washington Heights is the Dominican capital of the United States: the largest cohort of Dominicans outside of the Caribbean live in less than three square miles in Northern Manhattan. There were a few Dominicans among us, including an older woman named Georgina, whose apartment on 180th Street became our unofficial campaign headquarters. We squeezed into her small living room for daily strategizing sessions. It was at Georgina’s that you went to drop off or pick up campaign literature, rest for a few minutes, or just kibitz — almost 24/7.

The Sanders insurgency was supposed to have ended two months earlier in New Hampshire, which is why there was little evidence of a campaign structure in New York City in the weeks before the primary. So we built our own. Though most of us had not known each other before, we were united in a social movement. People got involved for immediate, material reasons, including high tuition and college debt, under-employment, threats of deportation, gouging by banks and credit card companies, and a commodified health care system that puts state-of-the-art medical care in nearby Columbia University Medical Center off-limits to the working-class neighborhood over which it looms.

Many of us understood that Sanders’s chances were slim. But walking the streets of working-class Washington Heights, talking to small business-owners and their customers, climbing the stairs of tenement buildings and knocking on doors, we allowed ourselves to imagine a presidency that would not only hear the disenfranchised but incorporate them into the nation’s polity.

Those days were full of both heady inspiration and sobering disappointment. We learned the importance of laying the groundwork for an insurgent candidate. But the moneyed Democratic machine turned out to be too great an obstacle. That, and the state’s strict voter registration laws.

The Primary

In 2016, Sanders held super-rallies all over New York City — in Brooklyn, in the Bronx, in Lower Manhattan — that attracted tens of thousands of millennials who treated him like a rock star. But many of those supporters were unable to vote in the New York State primary election because of byzantine voter registration laws that are designed to block insurgent candidates.

On election night, members of our Uptown for Bernie group stood near polling places watching streams of disappointed voters who had been turned away because they were registered as Independents and not as Democrats. To participate in the New York State primary, you must join one of the two main parties at least six months before the election. If you’re a paper member of any party other than the Democrats more than six months before the New York primary, you are disqualified. Six months before the New York primary it did not occur to anyone to register voters because nobody thought Bernie would still be in the race the following April.

The 2020 Democratic primary in New York State is scheduled for April 28. That means that any Independent who has not registered as a Democrat by this coming October 28 will be barred from voting. This obstacle hits younger citizens the hardest — many of whom register as Independents on principle and are unaware of state election laws. In a Democratic state like New York, where the general election is effectively uncontested, this is tantamount to disenfranchisement. (New York’s Democratic Party recently approved a rule that would allow voters to register twenty-five days before the primary, but it’s unclear whether the state legislature will approve it and Governor Andrew Cuomo will sign it in time for the 2020 primary.)

New York is not an outlier. The United States as a whole has the dubious distinction of being the lowest-turnout democracy among peer nations. Just 28.5 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2016 Democratic and Republican primaries. And as paltry as that number is, it’s the second-highest number in recent years. In general elections in the United States, turnout for presidential races rarely breaks 60 percent. Compare that to Sweden, where 87 percent of voters went to the polls in last year’s parliamentary election.

Low turnout in the United States is the direct result of complicated rules and laws that keep people out of the process. These roadblocks, in turn, generate further apathy and weaker accountability over the political process — and that’s exactly how governing elites like it.

A Short History of Voter Suppression

For nearly two centuries, states have deployed arcane rules like poll taxes and literacy tests to exclude poor and working people from the electoral process. Most Americans associate these disfranchisement schemes with the Jim Crow South, beginning in the late nineteenth century. But in fact, they were pioneered in industrializing Northern states in the early nineteenth century, to restrict the electoral power of immigrant workers.

In addition to keeping elites in power, disenfranchisement strategies have served to thwart class-based social movements. The architects of disenfranchisement in the 1890s successfully eliminated the Populist challenge to the rising class of agrarian and industrial capitalists that locked poor white and black farmers into perpetual poverty. Even racial disenfranchisement in the Jim Crow South was first and foremost a weapon of class warfare. When Southern state legislatures introduced the White Primary in the 1890s (not overturned by the Supreme Court until 1944), at issue was not simply white supremacy but, as historian C. Vann Woodward wrote, “which whites would be supreme” — those from majority-white counties in the upcountry regions or from the Black Belt counties where African Americans outnumbered white people. Most poor white men would have lost the franchise had it not been for the race-specific grandfather clause — a loophole created by “Redemption” state legislatures for illiterate males whose grandfathers would have been eligible to vote before the Fifteenth Amendment. The grandfather clause, first introduced in South Carolina in 1890, was modeled on an anti-immigrant Massachusetts law of 1857, in what historian Alexander Keyssar has described as an “exquisite regional irony.”

From the beginning of party politics, advanced voter registration has underpinned voter disenfranchisement and functioned as a “soft” barrier to blunt working-class political power. It first appeared in Massachusetts in 1800 — when the Federalist elite sought to protect John Adams from Democratic-Republican small farmers who favored Thomas Jefferson. In the 1830s it resurfaced in the mid-Atlantic states, where elites looked to control growing German and Irish working-class immigrant communities. And in 1908, New York City targeted Jewish voters, many of whom were Socialists, by holding registration on the Jewish Sabbath and Yom Kippur.

The Solution Is Voter Registration

Today, parties tightly regulate who can attain political power by controlling primaries. Fourteen states, in addition to New York, conduct closed or partially closed primaries. Even in states with open or partially open primaries, onerous advance voter registration requirements restrict participation. According to the US Census Bureau’s most recent voting registration supplement, 21.4 percent of eligible voters were not registered in 2014. Voter registration hurdles hit the marginalized the hardest — low-income Americans are far less likely to be registered than their wealthier counterparts.

That’s where the Bernie Sanders campaign comes in. If obstacles to the primary through registration barriers mainly exclude those who are unaffiliated with one of the two main parties, the Sanders campaign is a perfect vehicle to take on this form of disenfranchisement.

Sanders’ recent “democratic socialism” speech broached ideas that are taboo in the two main parties and that speak to the disenfranchised. He continues to motivate people to want to  take collective action to better their lives. Still, railing against elites in both parties and decrying the billionaire class in and of itself will not expand the electorate.

Nothing short of a national registration drive will pave the way for a real political revolution. The limiting factor for such a drive wouldn’t be enthusiasm or a lack of volunteers: it would be space. In 2016 we encountered a problem of suitable space in which to organize our canvassing before the primary. The Bernie 2020 campaign should use its resources to rent storefronts for voter registration workers from which to fan out into their communities, clipboards in hand, to register their fellow citizens. This would help clear away one of the greatest obstacles to political democracy in the United States, and it must take place immediately. As of today, there are less than four months before the end of the registration period in New York.

A registration drive could operate largely independently of the day-to-day campaign. Ten months from now, we’re confident that Sanders will be a frontrunner in the primary race because of his commitment to social and economic equality. Yet merely bringing voters into the Democratic Party is not in itself transformative — only a movement that registers millions of new voters can challenge the country’s political and economic elites. A successful registration drive would incorporate Sanders’s natural constituency into the political process, making it easier to push through concrete policies that would better their lives.

A Second Chance

In the 2016 primary, Hillary Clinton had more name recognition, especially among baby boomers and their parents. Yet as we’d canvass in Washington Heights, many of their children — some of whom were old enough to vote — knew who Bernie was. Apartment doors opened to more than a few multigenerational working-class immigrant families, who would gather in the foyer as the younger generation enthusiastically talked to us and translated for their grandparents. Many, it seemed, were pleased to see supporters of any political campaign reach out to them in a community where no one had seen a canvasser in years, if ever.

After 2016, Bernie supporters were understandably crestfallen. But the demoralization so many experienced was no accident: as activist-scholars Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward have shown, onerous registration laws throw the blame for mass disenfranchisement onto individual citizens and undercut class formation. Now that we have a second chance, we must not waste the passion and energy of the thousands of people who have already enlisted as Sanders volunteers. Failing to tackle the challenge of registration would seal the exclusion of a generation of movement participants and leaders from politics.

Grassroots activism cannot be orchestrated from the top. The best thing an insurgent campaign can do is use its resources to facilitate creative action. If the campaign can recognize registration as the urgent task, local people will step up like they did in New York City in 2016. At stake is not only Bernie’s chance of winning, but the character and significance of the campaign itself. Is it just another political operation in which staffers try to convince “persuadables” to vote for a candidate? Or is it an insurgent movement driven by the disillusioned and disenfranchised to transform the country?