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A true scandal.

Posted by Elwin Green on June 17, 2013 at 4:50 PM

Today I checked the Allegheny County Elections Division's website to see if the official numbers (as opposed to unofficial ones) for the May 21st primary had been posted. They have.

I wanted to figure out one thing - how many of Homewood's registered voters actually voted. To do this, I compared a map of the City's wards and voting districts with a map of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods. By my reading of the maps, Homewood includes the 8th and 9th Districts of the 12th Ward, and Districts 1-11, 13 and 14 of the 13th Ward.

Here are the numbers.

A little less than 18% of registered voters in the selected districts voted last month - which means that a little more than 82% didn't.

Now THAT'S a scandal. But what does it mean? Does it mean that more than 82% of voters in Homewood have given up on Pittsburgh's political system? Does it mean that more than 82% of voters in Homewood are so content with the way things are that they see no need to vote (if so, such contentment among such conditions would be its own scandal)?

What do you think, Homewood Nation?

Categories: Citizenship and Governance

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Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
4:59 AM on June 18, 2013 
I think it signifies a number of things -- where there are low rates of property ownership among residents there are almost always lower numbers of registered voters and lower voter turn-out.

I would be rather surprised if the low turn-out indicates satisfaction with the status quo. Most people I have talked to who don't vote don't believe that the political system is -- or can be -- accountable to them, so they say, "What's the point?"

Increasingly, I am beginning to feel that way myself.
Reply Elwin Green
1:51 PM on June 18, 2013 
Matt, I had intended to come back and add to this post, because I have additional questions.

You mention lower numbers of registered voters, but it looks to me as though Homewood may have a high number registered voters for an area with only 6500 people total. I wonder when the Elections Division last updated their registration count?

Of course, I don't think that the vast majority of people in Homewood are satisfied with the status quo. I fear that a comprehensive survey of non-voters here would evoke the same results as your personal queries. And when the majority of people in an area believe that the political system not only is not, but can't be, accountable to them, where does one find hope for change? Where does one even begin digging? When someone as observant and committed as yourself has begun to feel that way, I worry.

But I must admit that right now, Black voters can't produce much evidence to show non-voters that for Black people in Pittsburgh, voting works.

Maybe voting works only when enough people do it, and the primary task now is to get enough people do it. My own suspicion is that voting works well only when it is part of a broader pattern of citizen engagement such as I have not seen in Pittsburgh. In which case, the primary task might be creating that broader citizen engagement, with a higher voter turnout being just one of the results - but not the first one, and maybe not even the most important one.
Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
11:46 PM on June 19, 2013 
Hi Elwin, I haven't looked at the figures for Homewood, in terms of percentages of registered voters, recently. As a rule of thumb voter registration campaigns find that an extra effort has to be made to increase the number of registered voters among young people and renters. It is an easier sell to register people once they own property. Property owners tend to feel they have a stake in the policies that will affect their property's future value and the rate that they will be taxed.

I've felt, for the past 15 years or so, that we, Black people, should do a better job of leveraging our vote. We should not always allow ourselves to be in the hip pockets of the Democratic Party.

I remember when Rick Santorum was facing an uphill election and he briefly flirted with the idea of using community organizing methods to (a) increase Black registered voters and (b) convince them that the conservative Republican agenda was in their interest. He wanted to convince Black voters that Republican religious, family and community values fit well with traditional African American values.

Going back even further, this was the approach that Congressman Jack Kemp took. His focus was less on appealing to cultural values he felt the Republican Party had in common with the Black community, but to focus on small business development, property ownership and entrepreneurship instead.

I think that Rand Paul is going to make a similar effort in 2016, packaging his libertarian ideas in ways that he believes should resonate with Black voters. He is not the same man he was when he embarrassed himself before the students at Howard University a few months ago. He has learned from that experience. I wouldn't underestimate his ability to tailor his message and create a much-needed debate about how public policies affect the interests of the Black community.

The problem, however, is that every time Black Pittsburgher's have voted for the Republican Party -- at least since Hugh Scott and Richard Schwieker left the scene -- the Republicans haven't give us much reason to want to go back to them.

Take, for example, the election for County Commissioner in 1995. Mike Dawida, one of the Democrats who was running, said he didn't need Black votes in order to win the election. In response, Black voters turned out for his opponents and, although Dawida managed to get on the three-member board of commissioners, it was the first time in at least 60 years that Democrats were in the minority on the board -- thanks largely to Black voters.

And to whom did the Republicans credit their victory and cater to for the next 3 years? They credited and catered, exclusively, to their suburban voters without even a wink and nod to their opening in the Black community.

Then, in 1999 -- after the system switched from a board of commissioners to chief county executive, Cyril Wecht was the Democratic nominee. He went out of his way alienate Black preachers. What did the Black pastors do? They turned out the vote for his opponent, Jim Roddy and arguably made the difference in that election.

What did the Republican Party do with their surprise election victory? They went right back to drink the water from the suburban well and paid little attention to the Black community that was instrumental in electing them.

So, even when we have managed to leverage our vote effectively it hasn't turned out well for us. But still, we are ignored or verbally patronized by the Democrats with little of substance to show for our loyalty.

I think you are right in pointing out that electoral politics has to be coupled with other forms of political mobilization and organizing. I think that a more sophisticated approach to grassroots community organizing is essential for the future of the Black community in Pittsburgh or we will not have much of a future to talk about.

A more sophisticated approach to grassroots organizing has to go beyond just demanding things and making the news for a day -- it has to be focused on creating partnerships between community stakeholders, and it has to be linked with resources beyond the community, focused on tangible projects related to real estate, public safety, education, and health care.

Mobilizing is not enough -- it is merely a flash in the pan. Emerging and future leaders in the community are going to have to hone their organizing skills so that they can bargain, negotiate, cut deals and form mutually beneficial partnerships for sustainable change.
Reply Jeremy
12:58 PM on June 20, 2013 
Black people in general need to start relying more on themselves than on the political system. I don't think voting can give us what we want. Voting won't decrease poverty or increase employment. We are our own (and only) solution to our problems. It's time to look inward and not outward.
Reply Elwin Green
1:15 PM on June 20, 2013 
The day after the election, Carl Redwood made some observations on Facebook that I found thought-provoking. He has given me permission to quote him:

"18% turnout is pitiful. But it's not a question of education, engagement, registration. It's a question of choice. The Democratic and Republican parties represent the 1%. The Democrats rely on loyal black vote but ignore black interests. They do the same for white people. The Democratic Party supports wasteful military spending while closing schools. The Democratic Party supports building prisons. The Democratic Party supports government subsidies for their rich developer sponsors. How can the Democratic Party have these official positions and austerity actions while most people you know who are Democrats don't support these things. They don't care about us. Who runs the Democratic Party? 82% voted yesterday. There is nothing wrong with the 82% who did not vote. The old tactic of making those who don't vote feel guilty doesn't work. People need something, not someone, to vote for. People need real choice in creating a future for themselves and their children. The capitalist parties don't and can't provide that."
Reply Elwin Green
1:20 PM on June 20, 2013 
Jeremy, I agree that voting can't give us *all* of what we want. But we have collectively assigned certain functions to government, and I think we should be diligent in demanding that government deliver on those functions - education, for example. As long as we have public schools, those public schools should educate our children just as well as they do other children.
Reply Elwin Green
1:54 PM on June 20, 2013 
Matt, that's a huge chunk of data you just dumped on us there. Thanks for the history lesson.

Funny you should mention Rand Paul - I think that in Pittsburgh, both Democrats and Republicans have so thoroughly failed Black people that, not just a small-l libetarian, but a capital-L Libertarian, could have a real shot at capturing Black voters who don't vote. And given the overall numbers for actual turnout, the person who does that one thing could win.

Given the strength of the perception at the national level that the Democratic party is more favorable to Black people than the Republican party, it amazes me that local Democrats can still keep the name after the results they have produced here.
Reply Jackie Hill
8:02 PM on June 20, 2013 
This is unacceptable as a community if we expect elected officials to be responsive to our needs. We need an organization that educates people on how to get things done through the electoral processes, not just registering them to vote. WHO IS GAME TO HELP START THIS PROCESS????
Reply Shawn Carter
10:29 PM on June 21, 2013 

The problem is inherent in your solution. You say "organization". Most not-for-profit organizations are 501(c)(3) organizations who get their grant dollars from other 501(c)(3)s, namely the philanthropic organizations and government agencies.

None of them can afford to jeopardize their tax-exempt status by participating in electoral politics.

So, the other route is to form a 501(c)(4) "social-welfare" organization that IS permitted to engage in electoral politics. But than where do we get the funds necessary to build and maintain an effective organization?

The government can't fund it and the philanthropic organizations would be far less likely to contribute.

A sustained effort to educate, motivate and mobilize the masses to participate consistently would be manpower-heavy even in the age of the internet.

I'm all for the effort. I'd like to participate, but there are threshold issues that must be resolved and a steady funding stream must be established to be a viable presence.

Having said that, I'd love to talk about this in far greater detail.


Reply Shawn Carter
10:38 PM on June 21, 2013 

It is also important to remember that the number of actual registered voters still "in residence" at the addresses they are registered in Homewood could be off by as much as 25%.

Ours is a highly transient population.

Since "purging" the voterfile is politically unpopular, there are voters who may have voted as recently as last year in the Presidential election who no longer live in Homewood.

I would be interested in determining that exact number myself.

I fear we would all be startled.
Reply Elwin Green
10:52 AM on June 22, 2013 
Ms. Hill - The Black Political Empowerment Project, on its website (http://www.b-pep.net/) says the group exists "to build political power and influence for the African American community," which is a lot more than getting people to vote. Based on that description, I would expect them to do the very thing you speak of - to educate people on how to get things done through the electoral process.

The website also says that B-PEP was formed in 1986, which invites questions about how to make the organization more effective.

Mr. Carter - your statement, "Our is a highly transient population" challenges my thinking. I've been at this address for 27 years next month, and in my experience of Homewood, I've just stopped being a newcomer. I'm not saying you're wrong, I'm saying that Homewood encompasses diverse populations, each with their own culture. One broad distinction can be made between "stayers" and "movers." I need to learn more about the movers.

Having said all that, if Homewood has about 6,500 people total, I honestly would have guessed that, considering the age requirement and other factors, no more than 4,000 would be registered to vote.

Your comment that "'purging' the voterfile if politically unpopular," also gives me pause. In my view, one of the primary prerequisites of good governance (not to mention good citizenship) is accurate information. I think that the departmental job description for the Elections Division should include something like updating the voter registration annually.

Which leads me to ask, do you know if there is some municipal governance association where people in local government are talking about best practices in information management? That's a conversation I'd like to eavesdrop on (and contribute to)!
Reply Jeremy
8:11 PM on June 22, 2013 
Elwin Green says...
Jeremy, I agree that voting can't give us *all* of what we want. But we have collectively assigned certain functions to government, and I think we should be diligent in demanding that government deliver on those functions - education, for example. As long as we have public schools, those public schools should educate our children just as well as they do other children.

Mr. Green,

America's education system does not acknowledge the contributions of African Americans. America's education system is not designed for African Americans. It's a western education system. That's why our little girls choose white dolls because they are "prettier" or "better" and that's why our young men have no sense of self. That's why so many of our successful men choose to marry white women. Not all do that but so many do that. America's educational system can't be pro-Black because that means dealing with the truth and consequences of slavery - which we feel to this very day. We have no culture. Education is best taught within ones own culture so people have a sense of self. Blacks/African Americans/People of African descent have to build their own schools and institutions to teach our children who they really are. We can't let politicians or a western education system do that for us. As long as Blacks are not in control of their lives, they will always be controlled, and seldom to their benefit.

I do not think that simply voting can change things. Voting is not power if you do not have power as a people. Blacks have little power in America.We have a Black president but not much has changed. Hope is nice but it doesn't get people out of poverty. We need to rebuild our communities in ways that favor us, and above all, we need to stop believing that the people that enslaved us can help us. If they could really help us, there would be no institutional racism today. If we want voting to matter, we must first get economic power. Without economic power, voting counts for very little.
Reply Marshall King
2:36 AM on June 25, 2013 
I truly understand your sentiments to feel left out of the political turns, but if You don't at least
gather yourselves and make a stand what do you expect. At least make a statement for your
community. What can You do about this???
Reply Jeremy
7:59 AM on June 25, 2013 
Marshall King says...
I truly understand your sentiments to feel left out of the political turns, but if You don't at least
gather yourselves and make a stand what do you expect. At least make a statement for your
community. What can You do about this???

Marshall, you're right. Action speaks much louder than words. We'll do something about it.