For God’s sake, vote

These are the politicians who passed the horrific anti-abortion bill in Alabama. Notice any similarities?

It’s easy to look across the Atlantic in horror at Dark Ages throwbacks such as these yahoos, but don’t forget that right here in the UK abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland, as is equal marriage.

In Northern Ireland, the people most likely to be in favour of women’s reproductive freedom are much less likely to vote than their religious counterparts.

In the 2015 UK elections, 70% of Catholic women voted but just 55% of Protestant women did. That wasn’t a one-off, either. The pattern has been evident in elections from 1998 onwards.

There are multiple reasons for this, including disengagement from politics and a belief that politicians of all stripes aren’t trustworthy. In the US, the religious right actively engages in voter suppression. But the fact is that if you’re a woman or a member of a minority group, voting isn’t optional: it’s crucial. Because the people who want to restrict your rights vote religiously. Pun fully intended.

There’s a wider issue here, which is about representation more generally. Why aren’t politicians more representative of their diverse constituents?

Here’s Bernard Farga of Indiana University. Farga is the author of The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity, and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America. Farga answers an interesting question: how can a country such as the USA, which is becoming significantly more diverse, elect politicians who cater only for one specific group – right-leaning white people?

I think there’s a countervailing force to this “demographics are destiny,” which is polarization. At the same time that demographic change has happened, we’ve seen racial polarization of partisanship where whites have become substantially more Republican. And despite the fact that the nation is becoming more diverse, and maybe 40 percent minority by 2020, whites are still the majority by far, and will be the plurality group for generations to come… if the parties split on race, then the party that’s catering to white voters will still be dominant.

One reason for that is that the groups the politicians choose not to represent have much lower voter turnout.

…the increase in the minority population is disproportionately among very low-turnout groups: Asian Americans and Latinos. Latinos are the largest minority group in the country; Asian Americans are the fastest-growing minority group in the country. So, these two groups, where turnout rates are as much as 30 percentage points lower than the turnout of rate of whites, that’s the demographic change we’re seeing.

So that means the voting population is lagging far behind the demographic shift that we’re seeing otherwise. And when you combine that with polarization, it means that demographics aren’t destiny… demographically, whites are still a majority of the potential electorate, and the clear majority of the voters.

To simplify something that’s obviously a lot more complex and multifactorial: in the short term, political parties can gain power by ignoring minority groups and pandering solely to the demographic that delivers the most votes. It’s why conservatives put so much effort into appealing to older, white, straight, people: the turnout among other groups means they can effectively be ignored. Improving turnout is therefore crucial if we want a fairer, more representative politics.

Farga isn’t optimistic about where the current divisive politics leads.

…beyond who wins and who loses, it’s about having elections that represent the will of the people, and I think when you don’t have that—no matter who wins or loses—in terms of which party, the outcomes are bad. I think that some of the divisiveness and divisions that you see right now—the polarization—is a product one of the parties… feeling that the strategy to win is basically to keep people from voting, that the only way they can win is by certain people not turning out, because that seems to be what was successful in 2016 and a few elections before that, like 2014 and maybe 2010.

That’s dangerous, because when we start talking about outcomes that are not seen as representative of all the people, and then one party disproportionately winning those outcomes, then the other party says, “Well, this is illegitimate.” And that’s where you see democratic breakdown.