Inequality is a disease, voter turnout the cure

The 2016 election will be decided not just by who votes but by who stays home. Voters were for a long time assumed to be a carbon copy of the electorate, but new research suggests turnout is tilted toward conservatives. The key to implementing progressive policy is therefore boosting voter turnout by reducing barriers to registration and mobilizing low- and moderate-income voters.

A massive Pew Survey on the party affiliations of Americans across numerous demographic groups recently made headlines for showing the political preferences of Americans. However, in the published data, Pew did not distinguish between the registered and nonregistered population. I asked Pew if it could provide data on the political views of the Americans who are not registered to vote. As the chart below shows, nonregistered Americans strongly prefer the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Particularly interesting is that while the richest voters prefer Republicans, the richest nonvoters prefer Democrats. (This is in line with my research examining the American National Election Studies (ANES) data.)

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The most important fact about the above chart is that it shows Democrats are missing a huge opportunity by failing to register more low-income voters. While the richest nonregistered Americans prefer Democrats by a margin of 4 percentage points, the poorest nonregistered Americans prefer Democrats by a whopping 24 points. And the middle class (individuals with an average yearly income of $30,000 to $74,999) prefer Democrats by 16 points. In other words, the group that is least likely to be registered (low-income people) is most likely to support Democrats. According to 2012 census data (the most recent available), 65 percent of those earning less than $30,000 say they are registered, 26 percent say they are not registered, and 9 percent did not give a response.

To examine how boosting voting might affect policy on inequality, I asked Pew about its inequality survey. These data also show that the nonregistered population is more liberal than the registered population. Pew asked people which would do more to reduce poverty: “Raising taxes on wealthy people and corporations in order to expand programs for the poor” or “Lowering taxes on wealthy people and corporations in order to encourage more investment and economic growth.” While majorities of both registered and nonregistered Americans say that raising taxes on the wealthy would do more to reduce poverty, nonregistered respondents were more supportive than registered ones (59 percent and 51 percent, respectively). In addition, while 69 percent of registered respondents supported raising the minimum wage, 82 percent of nonregistered Americans did. While 60 percent of registered respondents supported a one-year extension of unemployment benefits, 69 percent of those who are not registered did. These findings conform to other research suggesting nonregistered Americans favor a far stronger economic role for government.

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Simply knowing that the rich and poor have differing views isn’t enough to prove that mobilizing the poor would change policy. However, recent research suggests it would: In his Ph.D. thesis, which is under review (other parts of the dissertation have been published), political scientist William Franko examines how class bias in participation affects how often legislators introduce and act on bills related to the interests of the poor. Class bias is the difference in the probability that a rich person votes compared with a poor person. In Kentucky, for example, a state with a relatively high class bias, a rich person is 39 percent more likely to vote than a poor person. In New Hampshire, a state with a relatively low class bias, the difference is 25 percent.

Franko finds that if states with the lowest class bias — New Hampshire, for instance — had the same high class bias as, say, Kentucky, the change would lead to a decrease of 17 percent in support for the introduction of bills related to welfare and 22 percent in bills related to housing. The opposite is also true: Decreasing the class bias of the electorate would lead to more bills related to these issues. In a recent paper, Franko finds that lower class bias leads to more spending on health care for children, higher minimum wages and more anti-predatory-lending policies.

Parties can change the composition of the electorate, but they have failed entirely to bolster voting among the poor. According to ANES data, only 37 percent of those earning less than $30,000 reported receiving contact from either party regarding the 2012 elections, compared to 47 percent of those earning more than $100,000. And this sort of outreach makes a difference. Using the ANES data set, I examined Americans earning less than $60,000 who did not vote in 2008. I found that 41.5 percent of those who were contacted by a party voted in 2012, compared with only 28.1 percent of those who were not contacted by a party. When I removed the control for those who did not vote in 2008, the effect became much stronger, with 85 percent of those earning less than $60,000 who were contacted by a political party voting in 2012, compared with only 64 percent of those who were not contacted by a party.

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Conservatives have taken steps to prevent reform, often fearing for the electoral future of the Republican Party. In 1977, Ronald Reagan worried that Jimmy Carter’s push for universal registration would make the GOP “dead as a the dodo bird.” Today studies suggest that an increase in turnout among low-income people and people of color leads to the introduction of voter ID laws, which suppress voting. Conservatives have staunchly opposed policies to make voting easier, frequently rolling back early voting or opposing same-day registration.

The divide is clear, and across the country, conservatives are trying to prevent low-income people and people of color from voting. After a Republican governor took office in North Carolina, a strange thing happened: Voter registrations at the local DMV remained virtually unchanged, but voter registrations at the local public assistance office plummeted.

America is slouching toward plutocracy, and democracy is the only cure. But that won’t happen magically overnight; national research establishes definitively that governmental responses to inequality will be determined by who votes. In the 2010 midterm elections, only 16 percent of young people earning less than $30,000 voted, while 74 percent of seniors earning more than $150,000 did. Without major changes, that spells doom for democracy and economic equality.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.