Ever fewer people vote in poor neighbourhoods… and no one cares

Ever fewer people vote in poor neighbourhoods… and no one cares

Political interest is shaped by a person’s economic and cultural resources. The unemployed, for example, vote less, because they are less socially connected. Older, less mobile people in precarious housing vote less because of the architectural barriers preventing them from getting out. And families without access to technology vote less because they receive less information.

(Jesús Ochando)

“What do you want us to ask the political parties? Send us your questions by WhatsApp. Do it with your own voice.”

These words can be heard coming from a small, intimate community radio station called Onda Color. With just days to go before the start of a gruelling election campaign, the presenter, Alejandro Blanco, insists: “Come on! Take part!” He is trying to trigger something, to start a movement, to awaken a voice, however weak it may be, among the locals listening to him right now. He is not going to have it easy. Because we’re in Palma Palmilla, Malaga, Spain, southern Europe. Because it is one of the ten poorest neighbourhoods in the country. And because it is one of the ten neighbourhoods with the highest levels of abstention.

“The turnout was only 25 per cent in the poorest parts of the district during the last elections. That’s a terrible figure,” says Blanco.

Three out of every four people from Palma Palmilla did not vote in the last elections, they did not exercise their right, probably because they thought it would make no difference. The same happened on the outskirts of Glasgow during the Scottish independence referendum, and in the French banlieues in the elections that gave victory to Emmanuel Macron. The same has been happening since the 1960s in the poor black neighbourhoods of the United States.

It is common knowledge among the political elite and analysts. Poor people vote less.

It is a phenomenon that first came under the spotlight 50 years ago in the United States, when it was noticed that low turnout was invariably concentrated in the same population groups, the minorities. In Europe, today, research such as that conducted by doctor in political science Braulio Gómez paints the same picture.

His study, Empty Ballot Boxes in the City Suburbs, points to the existence of veritable “black holes of democracy”, which coincide almost to the millimetre, with the poor neighbourhoods in urban areas. The percentage, in some instances, is as high as 70 or 80 per cent.

Abstaining – choosing not to vote – is a free choice, but when it is concentrated in certain groups, the consequences can be dire. Those who do not vote, do not count. And the most vulnerable count less and less.

Why don’t they vote?

“I always vote, because I want a better life, because I believe that things can change but, lately, we’ve seen that they don’t,” says Adriana Mejías, a resident of Palma Palmilla and a hairdresser at the local community centre. Her customers back her up, saying ‘politicians are all the same, they all lie, nothing ever changes’.

It could be seen as simple disaffection, the typical widespread feeling of disillusionment affecting all democracies, without exception. Voter turnout around the world has fallen considerably since the 1990s, from 76 to 66 per cent. It is influenced by general factors, such as the type of election, the situation in the country, and individual ones, such as age. Young people vote less. Votes come and go accordingly.

In the context of poverty and inequality, however, it is not only a matter of adolescent apathy or passing disgruntlement with the current state of affairs, but a definitive split, persistent abstention. The votes never return.

“They are people who feel that their voice is never heard, who feel that the parties never talk about their problems or their agenda and have no connection with their everyday lives. It is a feeling of total impotence,” explains researcher Braulio Gómez.

If politicians fail to talk about the difficulties they have getting a job, about how unsafe their neighbourhoods are, about the poor state of their housing or their children’s poor educational outcomes, why should they go to a party to which they are never invited? “People are fed up,” insists Mejías, “Their needs are so great and so many that they feel offended.”

Political interest is shaped by a person’s economic and cultural resources. The unemployed, for example, vote less, because they are less socially connected. Older, less mobile people in precarious housing vote less because of the architectural barriers preventing them from getting out. And families without access to technology vote less because they receive less information. This is why, according to Gómez, these neighbourhoods failed to mobilise even during the rise of grassroots movements such as the15M anti-austerity movement. “Most of the campaigns were online and there is a major digital divide between the rich and the poor.”

The researcher warns that this political disconnect is no longer restricted to the very poorest groups and that abstention is growing in line with the rise in precarity. The ranks of the ‘politically excluded’ are forever expanding. “Inequalities have widened since the onset of the great recession. The traditional black holes of democracy are growing as the ranks of the working poor expand.”

In a context where the lower classes do not vote, the middle classes – whose lives are increasingly precarious – vote less, and the higher classes vote the same as ever, what kind of repercussions can we expect? What happens when the vote is scarce and, like money, is poorly distributed?

The inequality no one sees

There is a ten-point voter turnout gap between the highest and the lowest income districts in some of Europe’s major cities. In light of such figures, some analysts argue that economic inequality increases political inequality, and vice versa: political inequality perpetuates and further increases economic inequality. It is a vicious circle.

“Since they don’t vote, politicians have less incentive to listen to them, and so the circle feeds itself. Either someone has to break it – either the social groups affected need to mobilise and show the politicians that its worth doing something for them or the politicians have to forget about electoral calculations and decide to mobilise them – or the trend will continue to reinforce itself over time,” says Joan Font, a researcher from the CSIC, Spain’s state agency for scientific research.

Going to the polls is, in itself, no guarantee that inequalities will be brought to an end, but there are studies showing that the more these population groups vote, the more wealth redistribution policies are implemented. “Those who vote more are more able to influence the political agenda,” says Guillermo Fernández, a sociologist at Fundación Foessa.

That is why there are grassroots movements encouraging African Americans to vote in the United States. In Europe, however, it is still not considered a priority. Neither the institutions, NGOs, the political parties nor, even, those concerned see it as a problem. “The focus is currently on the share of the vote that is going to the extreme right, but the issue of political exclusion is never raised. No one is talking about how to reintegrate these people within participatory democracy,” protests the sociologist.

In Spain, for example, some work has been done with the Roma community, a minority with a high rate of abstention – almost 38 per cent never or almost never votes.

“They have a history of not feeling identified or involved. There is a degree of distancing and disaffection,” explains Carolina Fernández, deputy director of advocacy at the Fundación Secretariado Gitano. The foundation has for years been holding workshops and sessions to raise the community’s awareness about their rights and what they can ask of the public authorities.

“Participation is above all promoted among the younger generations. There is a lot of potential. We have a number of people on the election candidates lists, and most of them are women. What is clear is that we have to put in the resources needed, to lay the groundwork, so that once these people’s needs are covered, they participate. Change does not come on its own.”

The contagion effect

In 2018, the community radio station Onda Color received an award for its special coverage during the parliamentary elections in the autonomous community of Andalusia. The local radio offered a one-by-one summary of the various election manifestos – a simple task, but no one else had done it before. In a neighbourhood where the polling stations are closed all year round and politicians only make quick and brief appearances, broadcasting such useful information is an effort worthy of reward.

“When you first ask people to take part, they don’t think they have sufficient knowledge, but then they really value it,” says Blanco. He nonetheless acknowledges that “political participation is still a problem that has not been diagnosed as one of the neighbourhood’s ills. Turnout of just 25 per cent is not seen as a problem, but 70 per cent unemployment is.”

There are ways of redressing this democratic imbalance. Political scientist Braulio Gómez makes a number of recommendations in his research, such as organising electoral advocacy programmes, making political parties invest a share of the funding they receive from the state into disseminating information in such neighbourhoods, giving immigrants the right to vote and including the excluded Roma minority in the census.

The good thing, Gómez points out, is that participation – as is the case with abstention – spreads easily.

“Participation is contagious. The more contact you have with people who are socially and economically included, with people who vote, the more likely you are to go and cast your vote, even if you live in one of the black holes,” says the researcher. “The trend can be changed, but first we need to recognise the fact that there is a problem. There may not be a law prohibiting poor people from taking part, but if the same groups are always missing when we count the votes, something clearly has to be done about it.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.