How to Solve America's Democracy and Poverty Crisis

Hardship is undermining the the nation's core values. Here are a few steps to help re-level the playing field.
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President Lyndon Johnson declares the War on Poverty during the 1964 State of the Union address. (Associated Press)

Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson promised to "strike at the causes, not just the consequence" of persistent poverty in America. His War on Poverty, he told a joint session of Congress, would do more than alleviate immediate economic needs; it would "strike away the barriers to full participation in our society."

Americans may have tired of Johnson’s war, but the struggle is far from complete. Not only does poverty persist across the United States today, but American democracy itself has become impoverished. The two are more entwined than is commonly thought.

As the foregoing articles in this series have shown, tens of millions of citizens, and would-be citizens, are struggling to earn their keep and keep their faith in a democratic system from which they are excluded. Millions more low-income citizens have a hard time making it to the polls for reasons that are partly within and partly beyond their control. Making matters worse, the politicians on whom they rely do not rely on them: a tiny fraction of wealthy Americans and special interest groups lobby the federal government, and a fraction of one percent of citizens provide the lion’s share of campaign funds.

However you slice and dice the numbers, people in poverty are at a serious, structural disadvantage when it comes to making their voices heard and having their interests represented in Washington. They are far from equal citizens in the public square.

 democracy problem requires a democracy solution. Just as the gains made during the first decade of the War on Poverty cannot be separated from another pair of bills Johnson signed into law—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965—so too must the work of combatting systemic poverty today confront the lack of political equality for all. 

Fortunately, democratic-process reforms abound. If states are the laboratories of democracy, then we need look no further than American states that effectively enable their citizens to participate in public life for examples to introduce to the nation as a whole. Not surprisingly, politically inclusive states also experience considerably lower levels of poverty and higher voter turnout than other states.

Some reforms are simply a matter of equal justice under law. Denying approximately 10 million taxpaying U.S. citizens the right to vote or voting representation in Congress, because of a prior conviction or the district or territory in which they live, is morally and constitutionally suspect.

To right the first of these wrongs, all states should ensure that voting and other constitutional rights are restored to people with felony convictions once they have completed their sentence and reenter society. In no instance should a former felon be permanently disenfranchised under the Constitution. State legislation or a constitutional challenge or amendment could accomplish this task. Likewise, Congress should pass a law granting voting representation to Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the territories in the House and Senate. A constitutional challenge or amendment based on Equal Protection could also accomplish the task.

When it comes to the 16 million taxpaying immigrants of voting age who are denied the right to influence the laws under which they live, many American citizens will naturally resist extending the franchise. Nevertheless, a measured approach that ensures a path to citizenship for responsible, law-abiding immigrants and considers inclusion of immigrants in local and state elections could have a positive impact on both economic growth and social cohesion. Like the majority of American states and territories before the 1920s, Maryland already allows resident aliens to vote in certain local elections, a practice long upheld by the Supreme Court. Maryland also ranks near the top of states in terms of voter turnout.

Finally, commonsense reforms abound for the tens of millions of everyday citizens—many of them living below the poverty line—who face unnecessary informal barriers to voting. While many states still enforce lengthy pre-election deadlines of 25 to 30 days (a practice dating back decades to before the use of computers), 11 states and the District of Columbia now permit voters to register on Election Day. Turnout in these states consistently ranks seven to 15 percent higher than other states. Vote by mail, as practiced in the high-turnout states of Oregon and Washington, opt-out universal registration that automatically follows voters when they move, and weekend or holiday voting also have the potential to meaningfully increase voter participation. Coupled with efforts to modernize election administration for increased access and security, these reforms promise to expand the franchise for millions of Americans who are formally and informally excluded from public life.

Of course, voting is not the only thing that matters to portioning out power in American politics. Long before citizens go to the polls, candidates are recruited to run for office in a process scholars call the "wealth primary"; long after the polls have closed, candidates continue to raise large sums of money in anticipation of their next campaign.

Sensible solutions abound. While money will always count in American politics, the pool of money on which public officials depend needn’t come from wealthy people alone. A citizen-funded elections system would effectively transfer ownership of state and federal elections to the people at large. Borrowing on best practices in a handful of high-participation states like Maine, Connecticut, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, ordinary citizens should be encouraged to directly fund campaigns through tax rebates, vouchers, and public matching funds on small donations. The Supreme Court has affirmed such reforms for their tendency to curb corruption and expand freedom of speech.

Nor should corporations or other interest groups be permitted to spend unlimited sums of money to influence political campaigns. To stem the flow of unregulated and undisclosed money in elections, Congress and the Federal Election Commission should acknowledge the partisan nature and corrupting potential of so-called "independent" expenditures and apply sensible limits and full disclosure. At the same time, measures should be taken to enhance the voice and lobbying capabilities of under-resourced groups.

Since electoral competition is also a democratic good, congressional and state districts should be drawn not by partisan state legislatures but by independent commissions charged with balancing representativeness and competitiveness. Competition and representation may also be enhanced by establishing open primaries, multi-member districts, and alternative voting systems such as instant runoff voting.

Taken together, these changes to voting and election laws would meaningfully enhance the ability of low-income people to speak and have their voices heard in the democratic process. They are a necessary part of our nation’s response to persistent poverty.

* * *

This it the conclusion of a week-long series exploring the intersection of poverty and democracy in America. Read the rest of the series:

Poverty vs. Democracy in America50 years after Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, tens of millions of second-class Americans are still legally or effectively disenfranchised. 

Should Felons Lose the Right to Vote? The poor and minorities are disproportionately locked up—and as a result, disproportionately banned from the polls.

Immigrant Voting: Not a Crazy IdeaUntil the 1920s, many states and territories allowed non-citizens to cast ballots. Given their role in American society, it's worth reconsidering the practice. 

Second-Class Citizens: How D.C. and Puerto Rico Lose Out on DemocracyIs there a connection between deprivation and a lack of federal representation? The people in territories without a vote sure think so.

Why Are the Poor and Minorities Less Likely to Vote? Even when America's underclass isn't formally stripped of its ballot, a slew of barriers come between them and full representation and participation.

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Daniel Weeks is former president of Americans for Campaign Reform and a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. He works on education in low-income communities at City Year.

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