Alabama Political Engagement - Part 1: Examining Conditions
Updated On: May 31, 2023

What are the political conditions facing the working class in Alabama?

By ADAM KELLER Published on May 7, 2023

Over the course of The Valley Labor Report, we’ve hosted numerous conversations about the state of the Alabama Democratic Party, including conversations with Chair Randy Kelley, Vice-Chair Tabitha Isner, and SDEC activists. We also had an illuminating conversation with Mark Dudzik about the U.S. Labor Party effort during the 1990s. It’s in that context I want to mention a study on Alabama political engagement and talk further about the state of Alabama electoral politics for working class people.

About a month before the election, a new study from Wallethub ranked Alabama voters as among the least politically engaged in the country. Per an Alabama Political Reporter article by Jacob Holmes,

“[t]he study.. found Alabama to rank 48th, above only West Virginia and Arkansas… The study weighed 10 metrics to determine political engagement, including the percentage of registered voters in the 2020 election, percentage of electorate that actually voted in the 2018 midterms, percentage of electorate who actually voted in the 2020 Presidential election, total political contributions per adult and other factors. The study found a strong correlation between a state’s level of education and political engagement. Alabama ranked 45 in education compared to 48 in political engagement. The study also took into account voter access policies and voter education…Alabama does not allow for mail-in voting, curbside voting or early voting…Alison Johnston, an associate professor at Oregon State University said that education and income correlate highly with voter turnout along with ease of voting.”

Also mentioned in the study in regards to income, only 47.1% of American voters with a family income of $10,000 and under voted in the 2020 election. And that was in the record breaking Presidential election that saw voter turnout nationally above 66%. Alternatively, a much higher 84.8% of American voters with a family income of $150,000 or more voted in the 2020 election. While income is not a perfect substitute for class, it does support a broader theme we see with the middle and upper classes voting at higher rates than the working class. By and large, workers are less likely to vote than their bosses and landlords.

A few other relevant stats for Alabama. The total population is about 65% white and about 27% black. Folks 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree or higher equals about 26%. Folks 65 and older made up about 17.6% of the population, which I actually thought would be higher. About 16% of Alabamians are considered to be in poverty. Per capita income is $28,934 and median household income is about $52,000, which means a hell of a lot of people close to poverty.

So with that in mind, let’s consider the November 2022 election in Alabama.

61.5% of Alabama's more than 3.6 million registered voters did not vote. That’s less than 4 in 10 participating and that’s just those who are registered, not including those not registered or not eligible. Looking at the top of the ballot with the Governor's race... Kay Ivey won in a landslide against someone who could hardly be considered a serious contender. But ultimately, Ivey only won 26% of registered voters, 24% of eligible adults, 18.7% of Alabama's overall population. I think it is a mistake to conflate the lopsided election results we saw as indicative of the state as whole. The far-right might claim a popular mandate but the numbers don't completely bear that out. A majority of Alabamians did not participate and as I referred to with the Wallethub study, that isn’t unusual, even if 2022 was the lowest turnout in a few decades.

For me personally, I voted and I will always vote as long as I have the opportunity. But I do understand why so many opted out. Voting is more difficult in Alabama than in other states and I shouldn’t have to remind folks of our state’s long, ugly history of disenfranchisement or the disproportionate impact of mass incarceration (the state is currently trying to criminalize absentee voting assistance). People are trying to survive, busy with work, family, health, and they must be informed about how and where to vote and of course, have to have some motivating reason on why to vote. This election clearly did not motivate the masses in Alabama. It didn’t help that many of the races were literally not competitive, as numerous candidates ran unopposed. I mean hell, out of 26 offices on my ballot, only 7 even featured Democrats (and some of those were basically campaigns in name only). For reference, the Libertarians fielded 12 candidates. There were more unopposed GOP candidates on my ballot than Democrats. That doesn't inspire much turnout and we’re just talking about the quantity of candidates, not even getting into the quality of the campaigns…

Now as we have previously discussed on the show, the Alabama Democratic Party is not, and for years has not, been a viable opposition to one party GOP rule and political domination from the right. A party that cannot field candidates for half of the races, much less all of them, could hardly be considered functional. A party that does WELL to lose by less than 20 points statewide (and in most districts) could hardly be considered competitive. And those are just a couple of many symptoms of deeper issues. So the party can't seem to field candidates, can't seem to raise money, can't seem to generate good press, can't seem to host regular meetings, can't seem to post on social media, can't seem to host online trainings, can't seem to even send regular emails. Can't. Or won't. If we were to find out the Republicans had been secretly controlling the ADP over the past decade, how different would it actually look? Would it even be surprising given the results? It almost seems you have to try to be as bad as they’ve been. It would be kind of hilarious if we weren't all the butt of the joke. Maybe you think I'm being too critical. But the majority of Alabama effectively does not have representation, does not have any legit opposition to the far-right, and has not for years (my entire adult life sadly). If that's not worthy of political criticism I don't know what is.

[Which is all separate from the bigger picture that the national Democratic party is ultimately a party of capital and empire, not the working class. But I’ll leave that alone for now and return to Alabama.]

If you know much about Alabama politics, you know that we have been a one-party state politically dominated by the right for most of our history, even if the party labels have changed over the years. We are living in the shadows of historic defeats of Alabama’s working class, including the defeat of the turn of the century populists and the unfinished work of Reconstruction and Civil Rights. The state has for most of its history been dominated by so-called Big Mules, the wealthy, elite, powerful interests that dominate our politics, our economy, and our society. And today, the AL Republican Party is happy to serve them and their interests with minimal opposition. And if everyday people, white and black, native and immigrant, gay and straight, if we cannot unite, we will continue the societal downward spiral of exploitation, oppression, and environmental collapse.

  • Stay tuned for Alabama Political Engagement Part 2, where I discuss how we could move forward. A version of this commentary was previously aired on The Valley Labor Report.

Adam Keller is a union stagehand with the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 900 and co-host of The Valley Labor Report. He is a former high school history teacher and spent several years representing education workers in Huntsville, Alabama. He has served in various roles as a union member and is a member of multiple organizations seeking to build a better community. Adam is proud to be part of The Valley Labor Report media collective as we strive to amplify the voices of the working class in the American South.

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