Many complain of the lack of direction of Occupy movements across the country. Let me submit an idea: if the protesters want to make a real difference, they should work to give “the 99%,” for whom they purport to speak, a chance to speak for themselves at the polls. The outcome of the 2012 elections could have a significant impact on many of the issues Occupy protestors care about. Meanwhile, the recent wave of tighter state voter ID laws threatens to make voting more difficult for many of the people Occupy seeks to defend. Taking action on this front will require the Occupiers to recognize that expressing dissatisfaction with current government policies does not mean rejecting the American political system, but that participating in that system—by voting, encouraging others to vote, and pressuring elected representatives—is indeed the only way to make the changes they desire.
It goes without saying that the outcome of the 2012 elections will have serious implications for many of the issues that Occupy protesters have highlighted. These include the future of the social safety net, the ongoing fight over President Obama’s health care law, and the potential cuts to entitlements from the Congressional super-committee. Tax rates for “the 1%” and corporations remain on the table, as is obvious by the ongoing fight over the Bush tax cuts and Obama’s “Buffett rule”. The Dodd-Frank law and repeated attempts to weaken it continue to spark heated debate over regulation of Wall Street. The battle is also on-going over consumer protection and Elizabeth Warren’s brainchild—the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
However, weighing in on these issues may become more difficult. In advance of the 2012 elections, many states have passed or are considering tighter voter ID laws. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, eight states (compared with two at the beginning of 2011) have so-called “strict photo ID” laws, which require voters to show a photo ID in order to vote. Seven more states have less strict photo ID laws in which voters are asked to show a photo ID but may provide other information instead. Overall, in 2011, voter ID laws have been introduced in twenty states that did not previously have them. Fourteen states that already had voter ID laws, but did not require a photo ID, considered or are considering proposals to add a photo ID requirement.
Supporters of these laws argue that they are needed to combat voter fraud and that they are not unduly burdensome. However, cases of voter fraud are few and far between. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the voter fraud rate in 2004 in Ohio, a crucial swing state, was a whopping 0.00004%, about the rate at which Americans are struck and killed by lightning. Ohio did not require a photo ID then, but it is considering doing so now. Meanwhile, the photo ID requirements disproportionately impact key portions of the 99%: the poor, minorities, and the elderly. Some have suggested it is no coincidence that these constituencies tend to vote Democratic, while the photo ID laws are generally being pushed by Republican legislatures and governors.
Unfortunately, voter ID laws have yet to figure prominently (if at all) into Occupy’s list of grievances. Indeed, many Occupy protesters, out of frustration with “the system,” seem to reject voting as a means of effecting change. Pro-Occupy signs posted on streets near Harvard declare: “Our system is out of balance and my vote doesn’t change things.” The Crimson recently reported that IOP volunteers who tried to register voters at Occupy Boston’s Dewey Square encampment found that many protesters were not interested in registering or voting. As long as Occupiers decline to vote, politicians will not take their demands seriously. Case in point: when warned by a protester that he would soon be out of office, Oakland City Council President Larry Reid (who called for the Oakland tents to come down in the wake of a shooting on November 10th) responded, “You didn’t elect me. You probably ain’t even registered to vote!”
Frustration with current Washington politics is understandable. However, it is difficult to argue that voting cannot change Washington. The Tea Party began as a loosely organized protest movement. However, it quickly focused on the 2010 midterm elections, with impressive results. The influx of Tea Party-backed representatives and senators has shifted the debate in Congress to the right, helped bring the deficit to the top of Washington’s agenda, and made traditional Republicans reluctant to vote against the movement’s agenda, lest they face a Tea Party-backed primary challenge. Some have noted a philosophical irony here. The Tea Party is largely an anti-government movement, yet worked through the system to change the government. Many of Occupy’s core demands can only be met through government intervention, yet the movement seems disinterested in participating in the political process. Moreover, if Occupy truly is the voice of the 99%, then surely those people (provided they can obtain voter IDs) would support its agenda.
Furthermore, if the Occupy movement attempted to translate the energy it has generated into power at the polls, it would probably be forced to confront some of its other problems along the way. It would need to develop a clearer, more focused platform by honing in on its central grievances and moving from identifying problems to proposing solutions. This would help respond to those who argue that the movement’s goals are vague and unrealistic, or that they differ from day to day and from city to city. In the process, it would have to distance itself from some of its more extreme and controversial supporters—helping to combat the growing image of urban Occupy camps as havens for anarchists, drug dealers and addicts, and troublemakers in general. A more cohesive organizational structure would also develop, both within individual camps and between camps in different cities.
Ultimately, the only way to change Washington is by working through the political process—a task that will best be achieved when all voices are heard at the polls. Admittedly, it is a daunting task to sort through various state laws to ensure that as many of the 99% as possible can cast their votes. However, protesters who have left their homes (or their dorms) and braved the cold while living in tents have shown a willingness to sacrifice comfort. Perhaps they should now devote some of their time and energy to the surely more productive task of working to register some of the countless eligible voters who are not currently registered, especially where voters may need help acquiring photo IDs. Instead of just speaking for the 99%, help them speak for themselves at the polls.