During the 1984 political campaign, there was a good deal of publicity about the efforts in scattered cities and states to register new voters as they came through welfare and social service agencies.
Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, the two academics and left-leaning political activists who organized this effort, now have published a piece about its results. It casts a different and disturbing perspective on the course of American politics -- and especially the Democratic Party.
Back in the spring of 1983, Piven and Cloward -- who have studied the politics of poverty and attempted to organize movements of the poor -- started something called the Human Service Employees Registration and Voter Education Fund (Human SERVE for short).
They knew from census studies as well as firsthand experience that most people who register do cast ballots, but that registration rates decline sharply as you move down the income and education scale. Their idea, seemingly a simple one, was to enlist as volunteer voter registrars the thousands of people working in public and private agencies providing health, nutrition, housing and other assistance to the poor -- and capture that hard-to-register population as they came through the lines.
Although the drive was nominally nonpartisan, their clear purpose was to mobilize as voters against Reagan in 1984 people they presumed had been hurt by the Reagan administration's domestic program cutbacks 1984. Thus, it tied in with the Democratic Party's announced strategy of mobilizing millions of Reagan's "victims" and changing the odds in the 1984 election by expanding the electorate.
As everyone knows, the effort flopped. Republicans heeded all the advance publicity and put together a counter-registration drive of their own that, from all evidence, added at least 2 million people to the rolls and measurably exceeded the efforts of the Democrats and their allies.
In an article in the summer issue of PS, a magazine published by the American Political Science Association, Cloward and Piven offer some telling explanations of why this happened. Given the clear political agenda of their effort, they expected opposition from the Reagan administration and its allies.
They got it. The Federal Office of Personnel Management and the Department of Labor challenged the program, and there were court suits filed by Republicans in several states. What they did not anticipate, they said, was the degree of reluctance and foot-dragging they encountered on the part of many Democrats.
Human SERVE sought executive orders from governors, mayors and county officials for publicly financed agencies to join in the effort to register their clients to vote. Of more than 30 Democratic governors, only six -- the governors of Texas, Ohio, New York, Montana, New Mexico and West Virginia -- came through. In addition, the governor of Minnesota said he endorsed the idea but did not direct its implementation.
The response was as weak at the local level, they say. Of the thousands of Democratic-run cities and counties, only nine cities in Ohio and New Jersey and eight counties in those and four other states participated.
The Democratic National Committee, they say, sent out its first letter endorsing the project on Sept. 26, 1984 -- "just one week before the close of registration in most states."
According to the authors, the effort did register 275,000 people through some 1,500 voluntary agencies, with the YWCA scoring the biggest single success. But there are, they say, 125,000 such agencies in America, so they barely scratched the surface. The potential of the technique was never achieved and barely tested.
Why the meager results, and why the grudging cooperation even from elected Democrats? The answer that both experience and these authors give is that people in power, whatever their party label, really don't want to rock the boat. Enlarging the electorate, especially enlarging it from the bottom, changes the basic political equation. It empowers new people, with new demands. It threatens the old arrangements.
Jesse Jackson argued throughout 1984 that the unregistered poor were like "rocks lyin' around" which, if brought to political life, could be as potent as the rock in David's slingshot. But many Democrats, no less than the Republicans, would rather leave the rocks on the ground. In many jurisdictions, they would just as soon that the poor do not vote.
That is a point to remember when you hear Democratic officials arguing these days that their party has lost national elections because it has "lost touch" with the electorate. They are talking about wooing back traditional Democrats in today's electorate, in which barely more than half the people of voting age vote.
The task of expanding that electorate is too arduous -- and too dangerous to the status quo -- for those Democrats to take on.