Letter to Democrats urging voter registration efforts

The following memo was written by Paul Wellstone to members of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party. At the time, Wellstone was a member of the Democratic National Committee. Although the letter discusses the lessons of the 1984 election, his emphasis on voter registration and mobilization remain relevant today.

December 12, 1984

Dear Friends,

I have spent the last month thinking a lot about the election, our party, and our future. We must look beyond the moment, and I hope this working paper will be a helpful contribution to our discussions, our debates, and our sharing of ideas as we chart our future course.

In the 1984 election people voted their pocketbook. They voted on the economy (the social issues did not make much difference). The exit polls confirm this. Ronald Reagan, riding high on an economic cycle and making people feel better about themselves and their country, won the Presidential election.

That is not surprising. But remember that two short years ago, in the midst of a serious recession, Ronald Reagan had the lowest mid-term popularity rating of any President in modern history. The U.S. economy is locked into a boom and bust cycle and the Reagan recovery seems to be on extremely shaky ground. With the predicted downturn in the economy the cheers may once again turn into boos and hisses. What is difficult to understand is the magnitude of the Reagan victory. The real income for the bottom half of the population dropped over the Reagan years and unemployment remained at an intolerably high level.

If people voted their pocketbook, why the landslide election? What happened?

First, we must understand the distortion of the electorate. The single most important characteristic of voting in the United States is the economic bias of voting turnout. There is a tremendous difference in the voting turnout of people with higher incomes over those with lower incomes. In the 1980 Presidential election 76 million people, 47% of the eligible electorate, did not vote - people who were disproportionately of low and moderate income. Many of us pointed to this "hole in the electorate" and argued that mobilizing the electorate from below was key to our party's success, that tide vote from the bottom could make a real difference in American politics.

Since I was one of the strongest proponents of this strategy I would like to begin this paper with an analysis of what happened or did not happen with voter registration. It will be awhile before we have real good data but this is what we know. A significant number of people (several million) were registered by conservative organizations and the Republican party and by various community organizations and the Democratic party. The Republican party's effort was well financed and highly centralized. It was a case of money versus our largely volunteer effort and the final result was a draw.

There are those who say that we tried the voter registration strategy and it did not work. But we did not try. The community groups (there were some wonderful efforts in Minnesota) did all that they could do. The problem with these efforts nationwide is that they were conceived and developed as volunteer efforts. This was profoundly admirable but it was a bit like organizing a volunteer effort to deliver the U.S. mail. The community did not have the money to do an effective job. The Democratic Party's performance was hypocritical. After dramatic announcements on voter registration, the party spent only two or three million dollars. The party did not spend the necessary money; a large portion of the funding went to state chairs, without a coherent strategy on how to conduct successful voter registration drives. Many of these chairpersons and state and local Democratic officials showed little interest in voter registration. Only a handful of Governors and Mayors and County executives ordered social service agencies to cooperate with voter registration efforts (Rudy Perpich was one of them - though there was not much follow though). The chair of the Democratic National Committee did not send a letter out about voter registration to Governors and other Democratic state and local officials until September 24 - two weeks before voter registration ended in most states!

This record speaks for itself. Our party (in Minnesota we did a better job) never committed itself to mobilizing the electorate from below and results were disastrous. This is a vitally important issue. We must decide if as a part of our overall strategy we are committed to vastly expanding electoral participation in our country.

If so, I have a very positive suggestion. We must stand behind the most elementary democratic rights - the right to register and vote. In most of our states it is very difficult for poor people to register. The whole system of personal voter registration (we are the only democratic country that puts the whole burden on the individual citizen) all too often sets up obstacles that seriously discourage participation. We are the only democratic country in the world with all these obstacles and as a result we now have replaced Botswana as the democracy with the lowest voting turnout (in the 1984 Presidential election voting turnout was again less than 54% and turnout in other elections is much lower). Our party should strongly support national voter registration on election day (the system we now have in Minnesota and four other states).