Challenging a rigged system

Katherine Hearst organised voter registration drives in the lead up to the 2017 and 2019 General Elections. Now, in the aftermath of a crushing electoral defeat for Labour, she argues that active voter suppression is just one symptom of a rigged system. The left should not be pointing figures at each other; they should be challenging the system.

Voter registration drive in Ladbroke Grove, 26 November 2019. Photo: Nick Evans

Getting out the Youth Vote

In the lead-up to the 2017 general election, I started a facebook group to coordinate voter registration drives. Armed with flyers and ipads, we targeted schools, colleges, universities, community centres to get marginalised youth registered on the spot. The scope was limited as we were scrabbling around for volunteers and resources. Labour party activists were primarily concerned with canvassing. Bar a few bus stop ads from the electoral commission, there were minimal efforts made by campaigners to get young people registered. With a third of young people missing from the electoral register, I couldn’t understand why more was not being done to address this democratic deficit.

Our efforts, along with campaigning by Rize Up and Grime 4 Corbyn, contributed to the ‘youthquake’ surge in the Labour vote. But even so only 55% of young people voted, compared to 85% of over 40s.

In 2019 – with unregistered young voters still leaving a gaping hole in the electoral register and a much tighter registration window – I reactivated the group. I was not expecting the response: volunteer numbers exploded. The page was inundated with offers of help, so many, in fact, that I was working full time to respond to them all. We had activists registering first time voters in colleges, student bars and community hubs in marginals from Southampton Itchen to Sheffield. Registration drives took the form of talks and stalls in universities, or flash mob flyering outside tube stations, sports centres and skate parks.

We worked independently and were self-funded, but we were not alone. Fck Boris, who were focused on promoting the BME youth vote in particular, ran ‘register n’ rave’ parties in marginals across the UK.

Being non-partisan gave us a degree of flexibility and greater access to schools and charities: institutions in purdah were more accommodating than they would have been had we approached them as Labour campaigners.

We spoke to hundreds of unregistered young people, Commonwealth citizens who were unaware they could vote, potential voters waiting on appointments for National Insurance numbers scheduled after the election date. We had to create a detailed guide to help them navigate this labyrinthine system. Other campaigns aimed to support marginalised voters through this process: Promote the Migrant Vote worked hard to disseminate otherwise inaccessible information to BME communities; Votey McVoteface aimed to help people without a fixed address through the registration process.

The task of demystifying a complex democratic system was intensive; it demanded hours of unpaid work and the unwavering commitment of our volunteer base who wore out shoe leather registering first-time voters across the country.

It was also eye-opening. Our conversations with young people revealed a system that is intent on excluding the voices of the most vulnerable. It disabused me of the belief that the democratic deficit stemmed purely from youth apathy.

Voter suppression 

Youth Voter suppression takes many forms: from more overt tactics like the scheduling of polling day for the last day of university terms to the more insidious tactics such as misinformation and lack of clarity surrounding the voter registration process. A number of cases were reported to us of young voters, all British passport holders, being refused registration or being turned away from polling stations because they lacked ‘adequate documentation’.

Lack of institutional support for voter registration was also a major barrier to engaging potential youth voters. While some universities were supportive of our work, we found that on the ground, they were doing very little to encourage their students to register. In some cases, activists were barred from campus. Imperial University ejected a PhD student who was flyering on polling day and reported her to her supervisor.

The electoral commission had a budget of £1.481 million, but they were nowhere to be seen. When we contacted them to ask about their campaign strategy they assured us they had been working hard to reach as many eligible voters as possible… by putting out TV ads. Given plummeting TV consumption among 16-24 year olds and the rise in online streaming platforms, this seems a bizarre choice of communication channel for a campaign targeting young people.

The barriers many marginalised voters face to democratic participation will become more insurmountable. It’s no accident that Boris Johnson’s first move following the election result was to announce the introduction of photo ID at polling stations. Trials of voter ID in 10 areas around the UK resulted in hundreds of people being denied the vote. In the US, voter identification laws have excluded thousands of voters, disproportionately low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

Young people’s political exclusion is misconstrued as apathy. We are a generation raised on austerity: we’ve been taught to prize a narrow notion of personal ‘success’ over our relationships with one another. We have learned to think about ourselves in terms of ‘value’: a disturbing number of my friends, in moments of despair, refer to themselves as ‘worthless.’

We are encouraged to limit our understanding of political engagement to the polling booth. But those bursts of what Barbara Ehrenreich calls ‘collective joy’ – the tuition fee protests, the Occupy movement – gave us a feeling of agency and power that our working lives otherwise denied us. These moments would ignite, burn fiercely and extinguish quickly. We would admit their futility and pick up where we left off. We were suffering a collective amnesia and understood these movements were ‘failures.’ After political defeats, such as the one we have just experienced, we forget the immediacy, agency and meaning we felt during those moments.

Voter suppression takes on many insidious forms. The most potent is the crushing message that striving for change is futile and the only thing worth striving for is personal glory. It teaches us to forget that democracy only works when we fight for it and when we demand it. This crushing feeling of powerlessness is only going to intensify unless we address it. Instead of turning on each other, the left needs to confront this democratic deficit and fight for a democratic system that works for everyone.

Voter suppression has a political purpose. It is designed to exclude and demoralise, to depoliticise rising discontent with the status quo and to maintain things as they are. The passion, organisation and creativity of the activists working to make sure youth, BAME and vulnerably housed voters got a say took me by surprise. So did my feeling of demoralisation after the election.

The work we were doing must continue and on a much larger scale: we cannot limit the fight for a more just democratic system to election campaigns. Pinning the blame for the election outcome on Corbyn is not only unjust but misleading: it obscures a rigged democratic system that does not work for the vast majority of us.

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