Suburban Strategies and SCOTUS

Brentin Mock writes about the SCOTUS decision approving Ohio’s “use it or lose it” voter disqualification program. Much ink has been spilled about the program’s self-evident partisan and racial basis. By design, it disqualifies African American and Democratic voters far more than it does white Republicans. Mock points out that the program also has the effect of disenfranchising urban voters and thereby reducing the influence of cities in elections (and the responsiveness of elected officials to cities). Ohio’s purges relied on two components: generating a list of registered voters who didn’t participate in a federal election, then mailing those voters response cards, with failure to reply entitling the state to terminate their registration.

Mock notes that this pinches urban voters from two directions. City residents are less likely to vote in many elections because partisan districting dilutes the influence of city voters and (see below) parties have targeted suburban voters. City residents experiencing rent increases, gentrification, redevelopment, eviction, or foreclosure are also likely to move and miss the opportunity to respond or to have an address mismatched to their registration. This is all well-known, of course. Vote caging is a longstanding strategy used to disqualify voters who fail to respond to a certified mailer, and inconsistencies in postal and other address databases (updates to which are frequently underfunded and delinquent) often create an opportunity to purge voters according to a Brennan Center report.

Given that state voter purges will continue to target urban, minority, and low-income communities, must the Democratic party focus on other constituencies, such as affluent suburbanites? An excellent op-ed by historians Matt Lassiter and Lily Geismer in the Times suggests otherwise. Lassiter and Geismer charge that the recent effort by the national Democratic Party to focus attention on suburban swing voters is misguided, both because those voters are unreliable Democrats at best and because adopting policies favored by the affluent, professional, and highly educated residents of northern Virginia, Silicon Valley, or Route 128 in Massachusetts makes Democrats less likely to mobilize the working class coalition they need to win consistently (note: the authors occasionally adopt the media frame of “white working class” voters swinging to Trump, a frame that ignores the above-average demographic profile of Trump voters. However, they make clear that a robust redistributive agenda is also needed to engage voters of color and low-income voters).

The reason is that the residents of those suburbs, while they may publicly object (or not) to Trump’s truculence and overt pandering to bigotry, in fact benefit from an inegalitarian political economy that is buttressed by the political and social boundaries that divide metro areas:

The political culture of upscale suburbs revolves around resource hoarding of children’s educational advantages, pervasive opposition to economic integration and affordable housing, and the consistent defense of homeowner privileges and taxpayer rights. Indeed, unlike traditional blue-collar Democrats, white-collar professionals across the ideological spectrum — for example, in the high-tech enclaves of California and Northern Virginia, which combined contain eight of the 15 most highly educated congressional districts in the nation — generally endorse tough-on-crime policies, express little interest in protections for unions and sympathize with the economic agenda of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

These “Atari Democrats” (to use Geismer’s phrase) just aren’t sympathetic to a broadly progressive agenda that is the most vital source of interest in policy on the left, and there aren’t enough of them to make wooing them a good political proposition, especially looking ahead to a time when Republicans will have a more disciplined and less orange person at the symbolic helm of their party.

It is rather baffling, then, that Democrats have made relatively little fuss about voting rights. As Ari Berman predicted, SCOTUS has just given a green light to any state that cares to apply similar methods to purge its voting rolls and engineer an electorate that Democrats can’t consistently win. Although it’s tempting in the era of Trump to attribute Republican political strategy to a combination of bluster, graft, and bigotry, vote suppression has been a core conservative strategy for decades, and if the GOP wants an electorate that is dominated by the suburbs, Democrats should probably think about why that is, and whether they want to jump into that particular pool (I’ve noted this here and here and here). As an alternative, I’d suggest that a full-bore defense of voting rights as a campaign issue is a good place to start.


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