“We have a governor and legislators who seem to care more about private profits than our lives and health. They care more about golfing and going to resorts than whether my children have heat or drinking water.”
Denita Jones, Texas
“We are tired of being ignored and our lives left to those who claim to be for us, but who act against us.”
Pamela Garrison, West Virginia
The 2020 presidential elections saw the highest voter turnout in U.S. election history, including among poor and low-income voters (LIV). Of the 168 million voters who cast a ballot in the general election, 58 million—or 35% of the voting electorate—were LIV. This cuts against common misperceptions that poor and low-income people are apathetic about politics or inconsequential to electoral outcomes.
To tap into the potential impact of these voters in the 2020 elections, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (PPC:NCMR) launched a non-partisan voter outreach drive across 16 states. The drive targeted urban and rural areas and reached over 2.1 million voters, the vast majority of whom were eligible LIV. The drive had a statistically significant impact in drawing eligible LIV into the active voting electorate, showing that intentional efforts to engage these voters—around an agenda that includes living wages, health care, strong anti-poverty programs, voting rights and policies that fully address injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation and the war economy—can be effective across state borders and racial lines.
- In the 2020 elections, LIV exceeded 20% of the total voting population in 45 states and Washington D.C. In tight battleground states, LIV accounted for an even greater share of the voting population, including in states that flipped party outcomes from 2016 to 2020.
- Where the margin of victory was near or less than 3%, LIV accounted for 34% to 45% of the voting population: Arizona (39.96%), Georgia (37.84%), Michigan (37.81%), Nevada (35.78%), North Carolina (43.67%), Pennsylvania (34.12%), and Wisconsin (39.80%).
- A closer look at the racial demographics of LIV in nine battleground states (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin) shows that white LIV accounted for a higher vote share than all other racial groupings of LIV combined. This underscores the necessity of organizing low-income white, Black, and Hispanic voters together in multi-racial political coalitions.
- PPC:NCMR’s massive voter outreach drive had a positive, statistically significant impact on its targeted population: LIV who were contacted by PPC:NCMR had a higher turnout rate than similarly positioned voters who were not contacted in those same states.
- In Georgia, PPC:NCMR’s voter outreach helped bring over 39,000 non-voters from 2016 into the 2020 elections, accounting for more than three times the final margin of victory for the presidential contest in the state. While we cannot say that this outreach was decisive in the election, it shows the potential impact that LIV can have on the electoral system if more directly engaged.
- To turn the opportunity to vote into a reality for LIV will require expanded efforts to increase both their registration and turnout on election day, such as automatic voter registration, same day registration, no-excuse mail in voting, early voting, more polling stations and extended and longer voting hours.
* LIV refers to poor and low-income voters, with an estimated household income of less than $50,000.
1. Mapping the Participation of Low-income Voters in the 2020 Elections
In the 2020 elections, low-income voters represented a significant share of the total population of vot ers across the country: 58 million of the 168 million votes cast in the presidential contest came from low-income voters. The number of low-income voters exceeded 20% of the total voting population in 45 states and in Washington D.C. This proportion was even higher in the battleground states.
Although it is commonly believed that low-income voters are not interested in politics or elections, the data show otherwise. In both 2016 and 2020, low-income voters accounted for nearly one-third of the total voting population. Further, in 2020, low-income voters both registered and turned out at higher rates than they did in 2016. They also accounted for a greater vote share in 2020 than in 2016.
For most states, registration rates for low-income voters were higher than their turnout rates. Although this is not unique to low-income voters, there is certainly room to close the gap between low-income voters who register and those who cast a ballot on election day. This is especially true in states where turnout rates among low-income voters are less than two-thirds of the total low-income voting population. This is the case in all but four states (Wisconsin, Maine, Minnesota, Montana).
2. Racial Demographics of Low-income Voters in the Battleground States
Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin were all very tight presidential races in 2020. In all but Texas, the margin of victory was near or under 3%, making possible a victory for either of the two contending political parties. In Texas, which has been a Republican stronghold for 40 years, the margin of victory was just over 5%.
Low-income voters accounted for a significant share of the total voters in these states. In states where the margins of victory were less than 3%, low-income voters accounted for at least one-third and in some cases over two-fifths of the total voter population. Given the small margins of victory in these states, it is possible that the broader population of eligible low-income voters could be pivotal in determining their election outcomes.
To better understand this population and its potential, the rest of this section looks more closely at the racial demographics of eligible low-income voters and the racial breakdown of the low-income voter share of total votes in these states:
- In Arizona, there were 2.49 million eligible low-income voters. Nearly 1.7 million were white, while another 631,000 were Hispanic and approximately 34,700 were Black. In 2020, white low-income voters accounted for 29% of the total votes in the state, while low-income Hispanic and Black voters accounted for 8.1% and 0.47% respectively.
- In Florida, there were 9 million eligible low-income voters. Out of this population, approximately 5.3 million were white, 1.7 million were Hispanic and 1.6 million were Black. In 2020, white low-income voters accounted for 28% of the total votes in the state, while low-income Hispanic and Black voters both accounted for approximately 8% each.
- In Georgia, the racial demographics among low-income voters were more evenly split between Black and white low-income voters. Of its 3.85 million eligible low-income voters, approximately 1.9 million were white and 1.6 million were Black. Another 164,000 were Hispanic. White low-income voters accounted for 20% of the total votes in the state, Black low-income voters another 15% and Hispanic low-income voters 1%.
- In Michigan, there were 3.8 million eligible low-income voters. Approximately 2.95 million were white, 642,000 were Black and 77,000 were Hispanic. In 2020, white low-income voters accounted for more than 30% of the total votes in the state. Black low-income voters accounted for another 5%. Hispanic low-income voters accounted for less than half a percent of the votes.
- In Nevada, there were approximately 985,000 eligible low-income voters. Among them, 640,000 were white, 225,000 were Hispanic and 56,000 were Black. In 2020, white low-income voters accounted for nearly 25% of the votes in the state and Hispanic low-income voters another 7%.
- In North Carolina, there were 4.1 million eligible low-income voters. Approximately 2.6 million were white, 1.1 million were Black and another 178,000 were Hispanic. White low-income voters accounted for more than 28% of the total votes in 2020. Black low-income voters accounted for another 12%. Hispanic low-income voters accounted for 1.2% of the vote.
- In Pennsylvania, 3 million of its 3.94 million eligible low-income voters were white. Approximately 561,000 were Black and another 216,000 were Hispanic. White low-income voters accounted for over 27% of the total votes in the state. Black low-income voters accounted for 4.5% and Hispanic voters another 1.3%.
- In Wisconsin, of the 2.1 million eligible low-income voters, 1.8 million were white. In 2020, white low-income voters accounted for 35% of the total votes in the state. There were 150,000 eligible Black low-income voters and 65,000 eligible Hispanic low-income voters. Low-income voters accounted for just over 2% of the total votes and Hispanic low-income voters less than 1%.
- In Texas, there were over 8 million eligible low-income voters. Of these eligible voters, 4.1 million were white, 2.7 million were Hispanic and 870,000 were Black. White low-income voters accounted for nearly 20% of the total votes in the state. Hispanic low-income voters accounted for 9% of total votes in the state and Black low-income voters another 3.7%.
It is notable that in every battleground state, white low-income voters accounted for a higher percent age of total votes than low-income Black and Hispanic voters combined. This would indicate that, for the broader population of eligible low-income voters to have an influence on election outcomes, white-low income voters must be brought into meaningful and intentional engagement with other racial segments of low-income voters.
3. PPC:NCMR 2020 Voter Outreach Drive
Since its launch in 2018, PPC:NCMR has been insisting that the 140 million poor and low-income people in the country be at the very center of our national priorities. Even though more than 40% of the U.S. population is poor or low-income, the issues of poverty, low-wages and other policies that could lift the load of poverty have received little attention in political campaigns and debates over the past decades and multiple election cycles. Believing that unleashing the power of low-income voters could shift the political landscape, PPC:NCMR has challenged political candidates and parties to take up these issues in their platforms.
In 2019, we held the largest presidential candidate forum prior to the primaries. Nine presidential candidates, including then Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris, were engaged directly by poor and low-income people and eligible low-income voters on their issues. Every candidate commit ted to prioritizing issues of poverty in the political debates and platforms for 2020 and beyond. We noted that, in the 26 hours of televised debates that were held by both parties before the 2016 elections, not one hour was focused on poverty. In the lead up to the 2020 election, we continued to challenge candidates in town halls and other events to take up the issues of poor and low-income people in their platforms and outreach.
Given what was at stake for poor and low-income people in 2020, from August to November, PPC:NC MR undertook a massive outreach effort to contact nearly 2 million low-income voters with historically low participation rates. Our voter outreach drive targeted rural and urban eligible voters, across race, in 16 states: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. This was one of the only campaigns reaching out to voters bilingually (in both Spanish and English), as well as in American Sign Language (ASL). It was also entirely non-partisan. The purpose was to encourage the targeted population to vote on Election Day and to get involved with a “movement that votes,” particularly with PPC:NCMR and the priorities of poor and low-income people.
Over a period of six weeks, we trained over 1,000 volunteers from 48 states to engage voters using phone-and text-bank digital platforms. We also trained over 1,000 volunteers to serve as poll monitors on Election Day in 10 states. To expand the impact of these efforts, we held a voter participation and protection online event in September that reached at least 1 million people.
Working with TargetSmart, we used a regression analysis to make estimations on the difference be tween being contacted by PPC:NCMR and not being contacted for similarly situated potential voters across the 16 states. An average of that difference comes out to 2.3%, implying that someone contacted by PPC:NCMR was about 2.3% more likely to vote than a similarly situated person who was not contact ed. The effect is statistically significant (p<.001). It shows that, even if the voters we contacted likely saw a number of campaign advertisements, news stories and engaged in or observed political conversation about the election, PPC:NCMR’s outreach was a positively contributing factor to them casting a vote for the presidential race in 2020. While the data cannot be used to claim that being contacted by PPC:NCMR was the only factor that drove them to vote, we can say that our efforts to directly reach out to low-income, infrequent voters improved their turnout rates in these states.
Focus on Georgia
Georgia was a notable state in 2020: in addition to the presidential contest, there were two tight U.S. Senate races, which ultimately elected the first Black and Jewish senators from the state. Their election also brought the Senate under a slim Democratic majority. For the first time in over a decade, a Democratic President would begin his term with both chambers of Congress under Democratic party control.
Like the rest of the country, Georgia experienced a large surge in voter turnout as compared to 2016, with nearly one million more votes cast in 2020. Given that the final presidential margin in the state was just under 12,000 votes, any differential increase in turnout had the potential to swing the results of the contest.
As part of our voter outreach campaign, PPC:NCMR reached out to 175,000 low-income, infrequent voters in Georgia. While turnout among these voters remained low compared to the rest of the electorate, there was an uptick in low-income voters. Notably, we contacted 39,051 voters who cast a ballot in Georgia in 2020, but who did not participate in 2016.
Again, most voters in PPC:NCMR’s contact universe in Georgia also likely received candidate messaging, viewed some amount of news media, were targeted by partisan turnout operations and observed political signals in regular conversation. We cannot use these numbers to say that our outreach determined the election outcome. What we can say is that they show the potential that low-income voters can have on the electoral system if more directly engaged. Those 39,051 surge voters—who voted in 2020, but who did not vote in 2016—accounted for more than three times the final margin of victory for the presidential contest in Georgia. While this is promising, it is also true that over 138,000 potential voters who we contacted still did not vote.
4. Organizing The Power of the Poor and Low-income Electorate
The terrain for the 2020 elections was complicated and the analysis above cannot be interpreted as saying that any one group of voters or a singular turnout effort was decisive to the election results. However, it suggests the following discussion points:
- The sheer size and vote share of low-income voters warrants more attention than it currently receives. Low-income voters accounted for at least 20% of the voting electorate in 45 states— and that share grew to near or above 40% in battleground states, including in states that flipped in 2020 or that retained very small margins of victory. This goes squarely against the commonly held belief that poor and low-income people are either apathetic about politics or marginal to election outcomes. Indeed, organizing this segment of voters holds great—and largely unrecognized—potential to shift the political maps of the country.
- The composition of low-income voters in the battleground states suggests that multi-racial political coalitions—including white, Black and Hispanic low-income voters—are necessary to organize this vast segment of the electorate. In all these states, there were more white low-income voters than any other racial segment of low-income voters. In actuality, white low-income voters constituted a greater vote share than all other racial groups of low-income voters combined. Although we do not know who these voters cast their ballot for, it is likely that the winning candidate had some degree of white low-income voter support. This presents a challenge to the media-driven narrative that emerged out of 2016 and before, i.e.,that white low-income voters are the de facto base of the Republican party and delivered Donald Trump into the White House.19 Part of this narrative is the idea that white low-income voters are voting not only against their own interests, but also the interests of other racial segments of low-income voters.” This narrative persisted through the 2020 elections, however, our analysis suggests something significantly different. The findings suggest that, rather than writing white low-income voters off, it is possible to build coalitions of low-income voters across race around a political agenda that centers the issues they have in common.
- PPC:NCMR’s voter outreach drive shows that efforts targeting low-income voters have strong potential to draw them into the voting electorate, across state borders and racial lines, especially around an agenda that speaks to their concerns. Given the vote share that low-income voters held in 2020, and the even greater number of eligible low-income voters, the analysis presents a strong case for building a political agenda that begins with these voters, rather than trying to integrate them into an agenda that is centered around “the middle class.” Herein lies the foundation upon which to unleash the latent political power of low-income voters.
- This means identifying an agenda that appeals to important concerns of low-income voters across race, that is, issues like raising hourly wages, stimulus payments, paid leave, housing and health care. As we saw in 2020, these issues resonated among broader segments of the electorate. According to exit polls, 72% of Americans said they would prefer a government-run health care plan and more than 70% supported raising the minimum wage, including 62% of Republicans. In Florida, the $15/hour minimum wage referendum got more votes than either of the two presidential candidates. While the context of the pandemic may have contributed to their broad popularity, the need for these kinds of policies predated the pandemic. COVID-19 simply created an opportunity to bring these issues to the center of our national politics.
- To realize the potential of the low-income electorate, our voting infrastructure must be expanded to encourage these voters to both register and vote. As indicated above, low-income voters registered at a comparable rate as the general population, but turned out at a lower rate. This would suggest that while mechanisms to increase registration are important for low-income voters, there is an even greater need for policies and legislation that increase their ability to cast a ballot and actually vote. Alongside automatic voter registration in multiple locations, legislation that provides for same-day registration, no-excuse mail-in voting, early voting, more polling stations and extended and longer voting hours is critical to turn the opportunity to vote into a reality. At the same time, efforts that restrict access to vote, including through redistricting, gerrymandering or purging voter rolls, must be closely monitored by state and federal authorities. Importantly, this means establishing a voting rights paradigm that is based on the reality of voter suppression instead of the false narrative of voter fraud. According to the Brennan Center, voter fraud is used to justify laws that restrict access to the ballot, even though it is incredibly rare; meanwhile, there have been at least 400 voter suppression measures introduced in almost every state house in 2021. For the low-income electorate to realize its potential, our voting rights must ensure the broadest participation among all voters.
The analysis and findings above break through the misperception that poor and low-income people are uninterested in elections or politics. As indicated both in the 2020 elections and through PPC:NCMR’s voter outreach, these voters will participate in elections and want to be engaged in long-term political organizing. In fact, this report underscores why the needs and concerns of low-income voters must be brought more fully into our political discourse, platforms and campaigns and why candidates who are elected on these platforms must live up to their campaign promises.
At the same time, the significance of the low-income electorate is about more than winning elections. The concerns of these voters are widely popular, yet far from being fully implemented. Instead, 140 million people are poor or living one emergency away from economic ruin, while the wealth and abundance of the country becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. In addition, the democratic rights of the people are under attack with voter suppression laws being passed across the nation and hard-won voting rights being abridged.
These conditions speak not only to the impoverishment of the 140 million, but the impoverishment of our democracy. In this context, a multi-racial low-income electorate offers a promising solution to counter the devastating policy decisions that have allowed poverty and inequality to deepen and the divisive politics that have taken hold in recent years. They are the sleeping giant yet to pulled into political action, but who hold the potential for us to realize the nation we have yet to be.