Reflections on the New Electorate: Civic Engagement That Reflects Who We Are


By Kip Holley

In 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama brought forth a new group of voters to the polls. These voters—primarily made up of women of color and those living in poverty—helped to propel him to the presidency in 2008 and to re-election four years later.

In 2016, as well as the mid-term elections in 2010 and 2014, the effect of this electorate was sorely missed, leading to dramatically different outcomes. The election of 2008 was the most diverse national election on record, marked by the highest African-American voter turnout ever and propelling Democrats to victories in the Presidential and Congressional races. However in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected and a GOP-dominated Congress was elected, only 59% of eligible black voters say that they voted.1 This past December, The Ohio State University’s Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies hosted The New American Electorate Symposium in order to bring scholars and organizers together from around the United States to further understand this more diverse group of people who are coming into the civic environment and how to keep them engaged for the future.

At the symposium, I spoke from my perspective as a longtime observer and professional working in the civic engagement space about our Principles of Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement and what they can tell us about the civic and community needs of a new emerging electorate. My argument is that the principles promote equitable civic engagement because they are responsive to three overarching desires of those who are often left out:

  1. The need for belonging and validation
  2. The desire for cooperative power structures, and
  3. Civic engagement decisions that are more accessible to working class and poor people.

These threads are rooted deeply in our work at Kirwan. From founding Executive Director john a. powell’s theory of belongingness and the thrust of the civic engagement work that accompanied our opportunity mapping, through to the principles themselves, we have found that equitable civic engagement is marked by belonging and building connections. When belonging and connection are deep and authentic, a sense of ontological security—or a feeling of security derived from a sense of stability and that our needs can be fulfilled—is achieved.2 To this new electorate, the civic engagement environment3 is about more than using civic power to ensure that their particular desires are met politically; it is also an opportunity for growth through learning about themselves and others through authentic dialogue and sharing. A civic engagement environment based on these principles is a place for diversity and renewal.

Cooperative power is a bit trickier. This is because there exists a distinction between traditional ideas of shared power marked by assimilation of marginalized people into prevailing norms, and shared power as a result of a conscious change in power dynamics between wealthier whites and poorer people of color. It is on this distinction that the entire premise turns.

Traditionally, inherently powerful institutions like city governments and local corporations are willing to share power with citizens and community groups as long as they are willing to support the most pressing goals of those institutions. Author Sherry Arenstein, in her highly influential work “Ladder of Civic Participation” noted this difference as well. She spoke of the difference between relationships based on ‘placation’ where “citizens begin to have some degree of influence though tokenism is still apparent” and where “the traditional power elite hold the majority of seats,” and “the have-nots can be easily outvoted and outfoxed” and relationships based on citizen control “where citizens hold the significant cards to assure accountability of the program to them. To resolve differences, powerholders need to start the bargaining process rather than respond to pressure from the other end.”4

Furthermore, a structural change in engagement and an environment should result in a general change in power relationships evidenced by a change of prevailing norms, rituals, and structures. McGraw-Hill describes these norms as Cultural Indicators of Power (CIP).5 I contend that when power is truly shared, these CIPs themselves undergo a radical and community-directed change.

This change in power relationships will not come from powerful entities. A cursory look at American political history makes it clear that powerful groups will not give up meaningful power willingly. Therefore, a new environment marked by authentic and equitable power sharing will not be bestowed by the current structure; it must be seized and then created together by a new and more authentically representative electorate.

So, what might this structural change look like? Is it a change in the faces, backgrounds, and ideas of those at the table, or a change in the table itself or the very idea of a “table of decision-making?” In a nation where democratic processes seem increasingly up for sale and hyper-partisan political strategies have led to increasingly polarized engagement environments and the rise of voter suppression tactics in many communities, the answer is all three. The ability to utilize the public sphere to make substantive change must be accessible to this more diverse (and often socially marginalized) electorate. Ultimately, this means a change in the structures, motivations, and success measurements of civic engagement in such a way that are relevant to a more diverse set of community members.6

In the final analysis, for democracy to have meaning, it must be meaningful to an overwhelming majority of the people. Since its founding, the American experiment has had to contend with the persistent yet flawed notion that limiting democratic structures—either economically, racially, or on the basis of gender—will make democracy more effective or that limiting democracy in this way is even possible. History has shown that if people are not able to express themselves meaningfully through formal engagement structures, they will express themselves outside of them.

The new electorate, diverse in background, goals, and context for engagement, confronts the broader American public with this reality. Meaningful democratic engagement is necessarily an authentic reflection of a person’s whole self. These diverse civic participants are demanding is an environment that reflects their whole selves in a very deliberate way. This calls for a change in the traditions and norms of formal engagement structures. This exciting evolution is the genius of the American experiment and we should embrace it with the excitement and wonder it deserves.


  1. Frey, William H. “Census Shows Pervasive Decline In 2016 Minority Voter Turnout” The Avenue. The Brookings Institute. May 18th, 2017. Return to Page
  2. Marcuse, Peter, David Madden. In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis. Penguin Random House Publisher Services. 2016. Return to Page
  3. We believe that civic engagement describes the practices, principles and socioeconomic conditions that comprise the environment in which people interact with their community and come together to make and implement community decisions that provide justice and opportunity for all community members. Return to Page
  4. Arenstein, Sherry “Ladder of Participation” JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216–224 Return to Page
  5. The Ohio State University. “Cultural Indicators of Power”” Return to Page
  6. Holley, Kip. The Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. The Ohio State University, 2015. Return to Page