The Challenge of Political Equality
IN THE SPRING OF 2006, New Orleans held its first election to choose a new mayor since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Only 38 percent of eligible voters participated. When compared with the 46 percent turnout in the 2002 race and the 38 percent who voted in 1998, this 2006 turnout seems unremarkable. But it was remarkable because of the large numbers of hurricane refugees who went to great lengths to participate. Six months after floodwaters inundated the city in late August 2005, more than half of New Orleans's 450,000 residents remained in exile, in particular the poorer, less educated African-American residents. Yet 113,591 of these residents found ways to cast ballots for mayor, many of them overcoming huge barriers in order to participate in the political process.1
This book unravels the reasons for participation among people like the Katrina refugees by providing insight into the personal commitments that motivate participation among traditionally marginalized people. The book seeks to answer the question, How do people without many educational, financial, and civic resources become engaged to participate in politics? Most research on political participation looks at the whole population and asks, What kinds of people are most likely to participate? Previous researchers have concluded that people who generally care about politics (i.e., are motivated), are able to participate (have resources), and are asked to participate will participate.2 But they are not the only ones who do. There are many instances, like the 2006 mayoral election in New Orleans, in which people who lack the resources—such as education, money, free time, civic skills—and the general political interest commonly thought necessary do participate. This book explores why.
In the New Orleans mayoral election, the refugees' strong personal commitments to the outcome motivated their participation—regardless of the resources they possessed. For many displaced voters, the stakes in the