Despite the best efforts of Lil’ Jon, the most recent Gallup poll suggests that turnout in the upcoming midterm election will be one of the lowest in the last five cycles. If trends hold up, it will also be heavily biased in favor of the rich (see chart). This turnout gap will have important effects on elections and policy.
For decades, the conventional wisdom in political science was that the voting electorate was a “carbon copy” of the non-voting electorate, leading two political scientists to argue that, “outcomes would not change if everyone voted.” Although the thesis was tenable in the 1980s and even 1990s, wide chasms have opened up on class lines, and therefore voting lines as well.
As Larry Bartels recently noted, “No other rich country even came close to matching [the U.S.] level of class polarization in budget-cutting preferences.” In a recent study with Bartels and Jason Seawright, Benjamin Page finds that the wealthiest one percent are more conservative than the population as a whole. Within their sample, the wealthiest tended to be even more conservative than the less wealthy participants. They find that even wealthy Democrats are more conservative on economic issues than Democrats on the whole. This comports with a vast literature finding that the wealthy tend to be more economically conservative and therefore likely to support Republicans (see chart).
Recent studies of the non-voting population suggests that wide gaps have opened up between voters and non-voters. In their recent book, “Who Votes Now?” Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler find that, “there are notable, consistent and substantial differences between voters and non-voters on class-based issues.” In the chart below, we can see clear differences between voters and non-voters on key economic issues.
A recent Pew study finds that non-voters are far more likely to oppose repealing Obamacare and support government “doing more things.” While likely voters were split between Obama and Romney, each with 47 percent of the vote, non-voters supported Obama by a whopping 35 points (59 percent to 24 percent).
All of this suggests that more turnout, particularly among low-income voters, would shift our political system to the left. The Median Voter Theorem postulates that democratic systems will produce policy outcomes that align with the preferences of the median voter suggests that turnout gaps as a source of policy bias toward more affluent households. Because non-voters are more economically liberal than voters, the median voter is more conservative than the electorate at large. If more low-income people voted, politicians would become more economically liberal to court the new voters. In one interesting study David Broockman and Christopher Skovron finds that politicians believe that their constituencies are significantly more conservative than they are:
conservative politicians systematically believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are by more than 20 percentage points on average, and liberal politicians also typically overestimate their constituents’ conservatism by several percentage points
Such a bias should be impossible to sustain – a Republican could easily win by moving slightly to the left of his opponent. However, given that the population that votes is significantly more conservative than those who do no, it’s unsurprising. Politicians respond to voters, not non-voters. In a recent study examining party platforms, Gerald Wright and Elizabeth Wright find, “a portion of the differential responsiveness we identified stems from parties overlooking low-income constituents who are unlikely to vote.”
But the evidence is not only theoretical: a large literature shows that when low income voters turnout at a higher rate, it leads to more generous policies. William Franko, Nathan Kelly and Christopher Witko examined all 50 states over more than three decades and found that “where the poor exercise their voice more in the voting booth relative to higher income groups, inequality is lower.” In another study, Franko examined voting gaps and policy outcomes in three areas—minimum wages, anti-predatory lending laws and SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program). He finds that states with smaller voting gaps across incomes had policies more favorable to the poor. States with low turnout inequality have a higher minimum wage, stricter lending laws and more generous health benefits than those with high turnout inequality. Further evidence comes from James Avery and Mark Peffley, who find that, in states with higher rates of low-income voting, politicians were less inclined to pass restrictive eligibility rules for social benefits. Two studies by Kim Hill and Jan Leighley find shows that states with a more pronounced turnout bias spend less on social welfare.
When black voters mobilized in the wake of the Voting Rights Act, Kenny Whitby and Franklin Gilliam find, “long-term Democratic incumbents have altered their voting patterns due in part to the mobilization and empowerment of the southern black electorate.” And it’s not only policy that would be affected. Thomas Hansford and Brad Gomez studied more than 50 years of data and find that the “effect of variation in turnout on electoral outcomes appears quite meaningful.”
When voter turnout is discussed in public it is often treated as a civic obligation, rather than a means to advance individual interests. Republican candidates often denounce low-income voters for voting for the party that best advances their class interests (while at the same time supporting massive tax cuts for their rich constituents). Yet when Benjamin Page interview the rich he finds that they, “acknowledged a focus on fairly narrow economic self-interest” when discussing their engagement in the political process. In this way, the recent Lil’ Jon video, “Turnout For What,” while tacky, has reframed the voting as a means to forward political interests, rather than as a civic obligation. Since some 41 percent of non-voters claim that their vote wouldn’t matter, this message is important. It’s also important to remove barriers to voting. Research by Jame Avery and Mark Peffley finds, “states with restrictive voter registration laws are much more likely to be biased toward upper-class turnout.” In contrast, states that have adopted same-day registration and vigorously enforced the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) have lower levels of class bias in their electorate. Research also suggests that unions are an important mechanism for low and middle income voters to engage with the political process. Attempts to disempower than should also be viewed through the lens of voter suppression.
Increasing voter turnout won’t solve the manifold ways the wealthy control the political process. However, it is an important first step toward a more equal democracy and would bring force politicians to consider the interests of low-income voters.
Read the full Demos report here.
Sean McElwee is a research assistant at Demos. Follow him on Twitter @SeanMcElwee.