A Swing State Disenfranchises Its Poor Electorate

Despite a federal obligation to do so, Nevada public service agencies are accused of not providing their clients with voter registration forms.

By Aura Bogado Oct 09, 2012

As we noted on Thursday, the issue of poverty was conspicuously missing from the first presidential candidates’ debate. While the term "middle class" was traded more than thirty times between Obama and Romney, neither candidate made any substantive claims about poverty. In a debate dominated by the topic of the economy, Obama couldn’t bring himself to say the words "poor" or "poverty" one time. Middle class, meanwhile, remains the term that is supposed to blanket everyone living in the US–despite their income or wealth.

Not surprisingly, the poor are given little voice in this election. Unemployment numbers remain just that: numbers that obscure the reality of those living people surviving without income. At a time when median white household wealth is at more than $110,000, and median black household wealth is less than $5,000, the term middle class also blurs the racial distinctions of money.

Nevada, meanwhile, remains a swing state that will be key in helping to decide the election–but the poor may be losing their collective voice as voters there, too. Although the 1993 National Voter Registration Act obliges public service agencies to provide voter registration forms for their clients, a federal lawsuit alleged that Nevada failed to do so, thereby not allowing an opportunity for the state’s poor to register to vote.

Meet our Nevada-based community journalist, Kate Sedinger. She’s currently working on a Masters in social work at the University of Nevada, Reno, and interns at Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. In today’s dispatch, she explains why the poor in particular must be given the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the electoral process.

Nevada Public Assistance Agencies Blunder in Registering Poor Voters

Dispatch by Kate Sedinger
In a country where so many cling so tightly to the idea of the American Dream, classism remains one of the least acknowledged forms of discrimination. We want to believe success is contingent on hard work alone because that allows us to believe that monetary wealth is in our future, rather than acknowledge that unless we were born into wealth or we’re white, middle class and educated, it likely isn’t. We want to believe that someday we’ll have no worries, life will be easy: we’ll be able to retire, to send our children to college without debt and to be lauded by society as proof that the American Dream can be a reality.

We all work hard. We put in the hours. We trade our time for a place to live and food to eat. We live with integrity. We set aside other priorities such as family, self care and hobbies for work, believing success is inevitable, as if success follows hard work as B follows A. We are committed to believing, even in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, that everyone can succeed in this country because we don’t have the structural blocks of other countries where wealth is determined by birth. We are all born equal, right?

The flip side of the myth of the American Dream is that those who don’t make it–those who, heaven forbid, use public assistance–just aren’t trying hard enough. This belief serves as a blanket of false security, allowing the belief that poverty is due to personal deficiencies rather than structural inequalities. By allowing us to believe if we just do the work, we’re safe.

Many of those who live in poverty are swept under the rug as having less intelligence, a weaker work ethic, faulty integrity and less drive. We may not consciously acknowledge this, but I wonder whether we as a society also believe the poor haven’t quite earned the same rights as those of us who don’t live in poverty.

Knowing this, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that Nevada public service agencies weren’t fulfilling their federally mandated responsibility to serve as voter registration sites. In my work in human services, I frequently interact with under-resourced individuals and have seen first-hand that the system is not set up to make their lives easy, nor is it designed to encourage their civic participation.  Like it or not, this country does not count all citizens equally–how you count is directly tied to how much money you have, how much formal education you have, your skin color, your gender, your sexuality and various other arbitrary markers we enact to make sure those who have had the power and the privilege get to keep it.

The Las Vegas Sun reported in mid-September that a federal lawsuit had been brought against the state of Nevada by the National Council of La Raza and Nevada National Association for Advance of Colored People chapters, accusing state agencies of failing in their voter registration responsibilities. This accusation was based on findings that several government assistance agencies did not explicitly offer registration to their clients, some failed to maintain voter registration forms in the office and many didn’t have signs or other indicators informing client they could register at the agencies. Not one of the government assistance offices offered their clients instructions on how to register to vote.

Those who support making voting more difficult have suggested that the motivated will find a way to enact their civil right to vote, regardless of how difficult it is. But civil rights aren’t only for the highly motivated, and they aren’t about how many hoops you can jump through. They’re rights guaranteed to all.

The ability of those living in poverty to maintain shelter and to make sure their children have something to eat is very closely tied to the outcome of this election. The policies of the two parties vary drastically when it comes to maintaining the public benefits system, and it is no secret that the concept of entitlements, otherwise known as Medicaid, housing assistance, disability payments, food assistance and myriad other programs are being used as pawns in this political fight. The poor are the ones who will be most deeply impacted by public benefits policy decisions. For that reason alone, poor people must not only have opportunity to vote, but also a reasonable avenue through which to do so.

Though the La Raza/NAACP lawsuit has not yet been heard in court, in consideration of the impending registration cut-off all groups have agreed to move forward. Since July 31, 2012 up to 30,000 voter registration forms are being sent out monthly to those using public assistance in Nevada. In that time frame, 2,731 completed registrations have come into the Nevada voter registrar offices in Clark County (Las Vegas) and Washoe County (Reno) from these public assistance agencies. The combined counties represent about 85% of the state’s population. This is a clear demonstration that when we unite to publicly advocate for equality, we can be actors for positive change.  

However, it’s not quite good enough. During the 2001-2002 election cycle, Nevada public assistance agencies collected 40,000 registrations. In other years, these agencies have collected between 2,883 and 13,200 forms. These numbers make the current cycle’s collection seem paltry. It seems that perhaps in those months when we weren’t actively registering those on public assistance, we lost ground we may not be able to reclaim in this election cycle.

A democracy is only as good as the percentage of people who participate. If we want to believe that we live in a nation of equality, we must not only enact policies that protect the equality we have built, but that also ensure those policies are followed. Doing this isn’t anyone’s responsibility but our own.