Category Archives: Voting

Higher voter turnout could limit the far right

One of the most disturbing trends in the American political system is the rapid ascent of the far right. As FiveThirtyEight editor Nate Silver recently noted, “The most conservative Republicans in the House 25 or 30 years ago would be among the most liberal members now.” In “Why Voting Matters,” my latest report for Demos, a progressive public-policy organization, I make the case that higher turnout would dramatically change policy in the United States by moderating the power of the far right.

I consulted the American National Election Studies 2012 data, focusing on differences in opinion between voters and nonvoters who identified as Republican. I began by examining the three areas of federal spending that most closely relate to the government’s role in the social safety net: Social Security, child care and subsidies for the poor. Each question asks respondents whether they want to increase, decrease or keep the same funding for each. I examine net support, which means subtracting the share of those who want to decrease spending from those who want to increase it. As the chart below shows, nonvoters were significantly more likely to support the social safety net than voters.

Voting chart 1

I also examined the rate of turnout by partisan affiliation. As the chart below shows, individuals with the strongest partisan identification were most likely to turn out to vote. In 2012, 88 percent of strong Democrats and 92 percent of strong Republicans voted, compared with 76 percent of independent Democrats and 77 percent of independent Republicans.

Voting chart 2

Finally, I explored the ideology of Republican voters and nonvoters. Among self-identified Republicans, individuals who identify as extremely conservative were most likely to vote, while those who are middle of the road were less likely. Liberal Republicans were the least likely to vote.

Voting chart 3

The data suggest that Republicans who don’t vote are far more moderate than Republicans who do and that higher turnout would lead to a more moderate Republican Party. There is a strong theoretical reason to believe that higher turnout would lead to less polarization, because marginal voters are less polarized than regular voters. In arecent study, researchers Ryan Enos, Anthony Fowler and Lynn Vavreck found that a propensity to vote strongly correlates with strong party identification and extreme ideology.

Two scholars of political polarization, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, argue that boosting turnout would push politicians to woo voters in the center, pointing to the example of Australia’s compulsory voting. As they wrote, “Australian politicians of all stripes say that knowing their party’s base will all be there, as will the base of the other side, requires them to focus on those persuadable voters in the middle.”

Similarly, in a 2012 paper, researcher Justin Valasek found that “measures to increase turnout decrease political polarization.” In an earlier working version of the paper, he points to the implementation of voting by mail in Oregon, noting that, “between 1982 and 1994 the Oregon delegation was more polarized than the national average, and in all subsequent elections, where all citizens were allowed to vote by mail, it was less polarized.” Though there is not enough data to conclusively show that voting by mail was responsible (thus it was cut from the final paper), it is certainly suggestive.

The greater influence of political donors compared with other voters can also affect polarization. A recent paper by economist Razvan Vlaicu argued that the increasing power of political donors has led candidates to pursue partisan policy goals rather than ones that have more popular support. Because donors are more polarized, if politicians are courting donors rather than other voters (or constituents), they will pursue more extreme policies. In a recent study, political scientists Seth Hill and Chris Tausanovitch found that “with respect to the policy questions in our data and the broader ideologies they represent, Americans tend to be no more distant from one another today than they were in the 1950s. The public has not ‘moved apart’ on these questions of government policy.” That is, what political polarization has occurred can’t really be attributed to the views of the general public, which have remained remarkably constant over time. For that reason, higher turnout, by wresting control of policy from a polarized donor class, could lead to more moderate governance.

Policies such as automatic voter registration could reduce polarization and make our politics more representative of the popular will.

There may also be a reinforcing effect from polarization and low voter turnout. A recent study by political scientist Jon Rogowski found that “increasing levels of ideological conflict reduce voter turnout and are robust across a wide range of empirical specifications.” This leads to a self-reinforcing cycle in which polarization pulls down turnout, further enabling polarization.

Other research also suggests polarization reduces turnout. Yale University political scientist Daniel Butlerfound that an incumbent’s voting “responds to the sizes of the different voting blocs in the district: increases in the proportion of independents and the size of the opposition’s base are related to increasing moderation; increases in the size of the incumbent’s base correspond to increasing extremism.” He hypothesized that higher turnout could lead to more moderate voters, causing candidates to tack toward the center.

It’s not entirely certain, however, that higher turnout would decrease polarization. It could simply bolster the left flank of American politics, as mandatory voting has in Australia and Brazil. Furthermore, the evidence that primaries lead to increased polarization is decidedly mixed.

It’s also possible that the very act of voting increase an individual’s partisanship. One recent study found that voting for a candidate leads to a stronger favorable rating for that candidate. Another found that when individuals register with a party, they become more likely to support that party.

However, even if lower turnout hasn’t caused polarization, higher turnout could still reduce it. Because polarization has been primarily driven by the increasing extremism of the right, reducing it would require finding a way to shift the Republican Party toward the center. Increased voter turnout would bring more moderate, center-right and left-leaning voters into the electorate.

To appeal to these new voters, the GOP would have to stop tossing red meat to its base and address the deeper problems facing the country. It’s likely that the new voters would skew Democratic, but because they are more likely to identify as independent and will tend to be less supportive of incumbents, both parties would be forced to fight for their votes. The number of competitive seats, which has declined dramatically in the past few election cycles, would likely increase.

Higher turnout has the possibility of weakening the donor class’s grip on policy. It could also reduce the influence of the extreme right wing on politics. It’s not surprising that the GOP, which benefits from a low-turnout, strong-donor environment, supports voting laws that tend to reduce turnout. Policies such as automatic voter registration, which would work to bolster turnout, could therefore reduce polarization and make our politics more representative of the popular will.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

The evidence is overwhelming: Americans should be automatically registered to vote

Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that would automatically register eligible citizens to vote when they interacted with the DMV. This is the second such law, following Oregon’s pioneering law earlier this year. As Liz Kennedy, a counsel at Demos, argues, these laws are crucial because they shift “the burden of voter registration from the individual to the state.” I’ve previously argued that automatic voter registration would dramatically change American politics, and two policies that are set to be major issues in 2016 explain why.

Debt-free college is one of those issues, with support breaking down along registration lines — unsurprising since low-income people, young people and non-white people, who are most likely to support the policies, are least likely to be registered. Peter Moore, an assistant editor at YouGov, an international market research firm, was kind enough to give me data about registration status from a YouGov survey focused on debt-free college. The chart below shows net support (support minus oppose)* for registered voters, non-registered voters and individuals over 65. As the chart shows, older people are most likely to oppose debt-free higher education, and non-registered people support debt-free higher education more than registered people do.


*On the three question examined, YouGov had 5 categories: Favor/Oppose (or Agree/Disagree) Strongly and Favor/Oppose Somewhat. I collapsed into two categories (Favor/Oppose).

Why does this matter? Brian Schaffner, Professor of Political Science at UMass-Amherst tells me that his Cooperative Congressional Election Study data show that the median age of voters in 2012 was 51, while the median age of nonvoters was 42. In another dataset, the American National Election Studies 2012 survey, only 5.8 percent of those between 17-34 donated to a campaign, compared to 20.6 percent of those over the age of 65, suggesting that both voters and donors are older than the population at large. To see how low turnout among youth affects politician’s incentives, I ran a simple analysis of the 2014 Census Bureau turnout data. I calculated the share of the electorate that was between 18-24 and 25-34 in 2014: 5 percent and 11 percent respectively. Then I calculated what the youth share of the vote would be if youth voted at the same rate as individuals older than 65: 13 percent and 17 percent, respectively. In 2014, only 16 percent of voters were under the age of 34, in an equal turnout scenario, 29 percent would have been. The chart below shows the stark change between the projection and reality.


My recent report “Why Voting Matters” brings in an extensive political science literature to show that politicians respond to voters, and that boosting turnout is one way to get more responsive government. It’s clear that in the status quo, politicians have overwhelming incentives to respond to the preferences of older Americans. That could slow progress towards debt-free higher education.

There’s another deep bias in the electorate: this one by class. People in families earning less than $50,000 made up 38 percent of the electorate in 2014 — in an equal turnout scenario, they would have made up 46 percent of the electorate. What might that mean for policy? YouGov was kind enough to share their data on another key question: the $15 dollar minimum wage. Already, organizing by fast-food workers and OUR Walmart has brought the issue to the forefront of the public debate. Could higher turnout push politicians to adopt a higher minimum wage? The data suggest is rather stunning: While registered Americans on net oppose a $15 minimum wage (40 percent in support, 50 percent opposed), unregistered Americans overwhelmingly support a higher minimum wage by a large margin (64 percent in favor and 26 percent opposed).


These results have strong support in the academic literature. For instance, as I noted recently, a study by Ryan Enos, Anthony Fowler and Lynn Vavreck finds that a one standard deviation increase in the propensity to vote (15 percentage point increase in the chances of voting) is correlated with a $6,000 increase in family income and a 4 point decrease in support for a higher minimum wage. Political scientist William Franko finds that high levels of participation inequality (the rich voting more than the poor) leads to lower minimum wage rates and less generous welfare programs. Other recent work by Franko with political scientists Christopher Witko and Nathan Kelly, as well as independent work by James Avery, corroborate this finding. In a study of 14 countries, Vincent A. Mahler, David K. Jesuit and Piotr R. Paradowski find that higher turnout among the poor leads to more poverty reduction via government transfers.


Some commentators argue that those who currently don’t vote are too ignorant to exercise their right — but studies show that when people are encouraged to vote, they are more likely to pay attention to elections. By boosting low-income turnout we could make politicians would have to begin addressing issues that are important for low-income, young and non-white Americans, particularly economic issues. Automatic registration at the DMV could bring millions of new Americans onto the voting rolls, making it easier for them to vote but also making them targets for get-out-the-vote operations. As I’ve noted, there is a deep mobilization gap, with parties more likely to mobilize richer voters. Automatic voter registration could solve that. For my report, Christopher Mann, professor of political science and Director of LSU’s Academy of Applied Politics, told me that it is “unequivocally” true that same-day registration “makes more low-income people targets for GOTV.” The effect of an even more powerful reform like AVR would likely be even stronger. In the status quo, politicians are overwhelmingly responsive to donors. But with higher turnout, catering only to the donor class could threaten their seat. Automatic registration could serve to alleviate the power of the donor class, and is the first step towards bringing America closer to its democratic ideal. It could release a democratic revolution.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

The true cost of Voter ID: Everything you need to know about the monumental cost of voter suppression

In my recent report, “Why Voting Matters,” I show the dramatic differences in opinion between voters and nonvoters, and argue that more voter turnout would lead to more progressive policies. One of the most dramatic gaps in opinion is between white voters and non-white nonvoters (shown below). As 2016 approaches, the question of how to mobilize the political power of people of color is increasingly being discussed with the rise of groups like Black Lives Matter. Though it’s clear that voter turnout will not be enough to fully realize political equality, it can have a dramatic influence on policy.


In a study released last year, political scientist Jon Rogowski and Sophie Schuit of the Brennan Center for Justice find that members of Congress representing districts covered by the preclearance provision (which was struck down by the Roberts court when it gutted the Voting Rights Act) were more supportive of civil rights legislation. The chart below (on the left) shows that as the black population increased, a legislator in a district protected by the Voting Rights Act became more liberal on civil rights, while one in a non-covered district became more conservative. The chart on the right shows that in more competitive districts, representatives covered by the VRA were more progressive on civil rights than in non-covered districts. As the authors write, “By guaranteeing the voting rights of Black constituents, Section 5 created the incentives for elected officials to better represent Black interests.”


Other research on the impact of voting in the South comes to similar conclusions. For instance, economist Suresh Naidu finds that poll taxes and literacy tests lead to a decline in the teacher-child ratio at black schools of 10 to 23 percent (no effect on white schools). Economists Elizabeth Cascio and Ebonya Washington find that the boost in black turnout following the Voting Rights Act boosted state transfers to localities with higher black populations. Economist Ferran Elias finds that the court orders shifting cities from at-large elections to single districts (thereby guaranteeing black representation on the city council) boosted public good expenditures and tax collection, as well as the share of black public workers. He also finds that it boosted the value of houses owned by black citizens. This research all suggests that voter protections, many of them under assault by the court, have been integral to equitable representation.

A fascinating working paper from Brazil sheds more light on the importance of voting — and making voting as easy as possible. The paper examined a re-registration program in Brazil that affected 1,186 municipalities. The program pulled down registration rates by 10 points and turnout by 5 percentage points in the affected districts. The authors find that the effect was dramatic: “The newly elected mayors responded to this change by reducing public expenditure in areas that disproportionately benefit poor and uneducated voters (education and health).” Although the paper is still in the working-paper stage, it finds support from other similar studies: One from Princeton economist Thomas Fujiwara finds that the adoption of new electronic voting technology in Brazil, which boosted turnout among less-educated citizens, led to more government spending on healthcare. The result was increased prenatal visits, and therefore a reduction in low-weight births among less-educated women.

An increasingly large international literature suggests that districts or municipalities with high turnout are favored by politicians. In the U.S., Paul Martin finds that counties with higher turnout receive more funding from the federal government. In another study, he and Michele P. Claibourn find that “districts that vote at lower rates have less impact on their representatives’ policy positions.” A study in Japan that examined variations in turnout caused by rainfall, which reduces turnout, finds that municipalities with higher turnout received larger intergovernmental transfers.

This is not to say that voter turnout would entirely solve our entrenched political biases. The donor class, for instance, is overwhelmingly white, and politicians respond disproportionately to the preferences of donors. But they also responddisproportionately to voters. And voters are disproportionately white. I recently noted that non-Hispanic whites made up 76.3 percent of the electorate in 2014, while with equal turnout they would have made up 69.9 percent of voters, a difference of 6.4 points. For comparison, the change in the white share of the electorate dropped from 82.5 percent in the 1996 midterm, a 6.2 point difference. To put it another way, equalizing turnout would have a result equivalent to nearly two decades of demographic change.


Because turnout is so important, eliminating barriers to access is all the more urgent. This presidential election cycle, the first without the full protection of the VRA, is seeing a deeply racialized attack on voting rights. As I’ve shown, white Americans are far more likely to stereotype black Americans in states with voter ID laws. Academics have made a persuasive case the voter ID laws are “highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs.” A recent study of early voting finds that “percentage of a county identifying as Black has a significantly negative association with early voting site density.”

The solution to our voting crisis is universal same-day registration and robust enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act, combined with automatic voter registration where the technological capability exists. In addition, Congress mustrestore the vital preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. Finally, nonpartisan GOTV operations and voter awareness drives can boost turnout. Bolstering the political power for people of color is a long-term project that involves removing many of the distortionary barriers to participation in our political system. A key step is boosting voter turnout. As the nation becomes diverse, its electorate must become more diverse as well. More inclusive turnout will lead to policies that better represent the needs of all Americans.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

Why voting matters: the progressive majority that doesn’t show up

Political scientist Larry Sabato once said, “Every election is determined by the people who show up.” Though the quote is at first blush rather banal, it carries profound implications for American democracy. In my latest report for Demos, “Why Voting Matters,” I argue that who votes has profound implications for policy. I argue further that contrary to the view espoused by many political scientists, voters are not a “carbon copy” of the electorate, but rather older, whiter and richer — and therefore more conservative.

Who votes? Using data from the 2014 midterm, I find that there are large class and age gaps in voter turnout. To take one jarring statistic, while 52 percent of those earning above $150,000 voted, only 1 in 4 of those earning less than $10,000 did. Class gaps are magnified by age gaps. Among 18-24 year olds earning less than $30,000 turnout was 17 percent in 2014, but among those earning more than $150,000 and older than 65, the turnout rate was nearly four times higher, at 65 percent.


A recent study by political scientists Ryan Enos, Anthony Fowler and Lynn Vavreckexamines how “propensity to vote” correlates with policy views. They find that a one standard deviation increase in the propensity to vote (15 percentage point change in the chances of voting) is correlated with a $6,000 increase in family income, a 3 point increase in support for G.W. Bush, a 4 point decrease in support for a higher minimum wage, a 2 point decrease in support for affirmative action, a 2 point decrease in support for federal housing assistance. All of these are statistically significant, and strongly suggest that on many key issues voters are more conservative than non-voters.


In a recent article, historian Rick Perlstein puts the American voter turnout problem in historical perspective. He notes that Jimmy Carter warned in 1976 that “millions of Americans are prevented or discouraged from voting in every election by antiquated and overly restricted voter registration laws.” Carter then proposed a battery of reforms: universal election day registration, aid to help states implement the law, more robust public financing of elections and an abolition of the electoral college.

Initially the plan was met with broad public support. Indeed, in a move unimaginable today, “William Brock, chairman of the Republican National Committee, called it ‘a Republican concept.’” Some Republicans called for going even further, “making election day a national holiday and keeping polls open 24 hours.”

However, not all Republicans supported the proposal to make the vote easier. Ronald Reagan wrote that it would “invite wholesale election fraud, restrict effective challenges to incumbents and render the Republican Party as dead as the Dodo bird.” As it happens, none of his claims were true then, and none are true today. Evidence of voter fraud is vanishingly slim, and Carter’s proposal actually pushed for measures to reduce fraud. Research shows higher voter turnout doesn’t benefit incumbents; indeed, low voter turnout entrenches them. Finally, it’s unlikely that voter turnout would cause an end to the two-party system. Rather, higher voter turnout would force both parties, Republican and Democrat to move more in line with the preferences of the American population at large, rather than the whiter, older and richer voting population.

Reagan’s opposition to Carter’s proposal is not entirely surprising. New research I’veexplored elsewhere shows that “The Reagan team assembled little data on the middle- and lower-income groups as it focused intently on gathering information on the affluent.” That is, Reagan used internal polling to ensure that his policies were in line with the preferences of the wealthy, not average Americans. His agenda, then, would certainly benefit if the people he ignored weren’t able to push him from office. There are differences in partisan affiliation between voters and nonvoters and voters, but the strongest differences are on the role of government in the economy and support for progressive causes (see chart). More voter participation would force both political parties to address deepening concerns about rising income and wealth inequality.


The solution to plutocracy and entrenched wealth is more democracy. Robust enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) can dramatically improve registration rates. Policies like Same-Day Registration can boost turnout, and could supplement Automatic Voter Registration (which shifts the burden of voter registration to the government). An all-of-the above approach to convenience voting measures makes sense, since their effect is likely to be strongest with universal registration and more competitive get-out-the-vote operations. The United States also needs a strong public financing system to increase the voice of average Americans against the overwhelmingly rich and white donor class. As the great Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerated the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself.”

This piece originally appeared on Salon

Mass incarceration is destroying democracy

In 2014, voter turnout hit new lows for a midterm election: The most recent census data suggest turnout was a measly 41.9 percent. It’s likely that turnout was even lower, since the census data, while the best we have, is slightly inflated by the fact that people overreport socially positive behaviors like voting. Data that directly examines the number of votes counted suggest that turnout was around 36.6 percent of the voting-eligible population. But, while census data aren’t perfect, they allow us to examine turnout among different demographic groups (though even here, there are flaws). Looking at the data, I find a pretty stunning gender gap among one racial group: Black men are far less likely to vote than black women, and this is likely the legacy of mass incarceration.

The numbers are stark. In 2014, turnout among non-Hispanic white men was 45 percent, but among black men it was 36 percent (among Asian men it was 26 percent and among Latinos 25 percent). While the male/female turnout gap was 2 points on average, it was 1 point among non-Hispanic whites, 3.5 points among Latinos and 1.7 points among Asians. Among blacks, the gap was 7.7 points.

Validated data (which are far more accurate, but only available for some years) tell a similar story. A 2013 study by Stephen Ansolabehere and Eitan Hersh showed, using validated data, huge gaps in turnout between black (and Latino) men and women in the 2008 election. They write that, “The largest gender gap is among Blacks: black women are 17 percentage points more likely to vote than black men.”

A sound reason for low-turnout among black men (and possibly among Latino men as well) is felon disenfranchisement. One recent study finds, “1 of every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than non-African Americans.” The reason for why mass incarceration might depress black male turnout is simple: Both the Census Bureau and Ansolabehere/Hesh measure turnout as a share of citizen voting age population. However, a not insignificant share of the citizen population above the age of 18 cannot vote because they are either incarcerated or live in a state that disenfranchises former felons. (McDonald adjusts for this in his turnout data — though not for lifetime felon disenfranchisement.) As political scientist Bernard Fraga has shown, once this is controlled for, black male turnout actually exceeded that of white men and women in 2012.

There are other reasons to suspect that the carceral state is behind low black turnout, and could explain some of low Hispanic turnout. Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman find that interactions with the justice system reduce civic participation, trust in government and voting. The effect is powerful: “The probability of voting declined 8 percent for those who had been stopped and questioned by the police; by 16 percent for those with a history of being arrested; by 18 percent for those with a conviction; by 22 percent for those serving time in jail or prison.” The relationship holds even after controlling for socioeconomic status and the propensity to commit crimes.

Politicians like Rick Scott, governor of Florida, have used felon disenfranchisement to maintain power. In 2011, Scott overturned an executive order that had previously allowed felons to regain access to the ballot box after navigating a complicated process. The result is that the number of disenfranchised felons in 2010 in Florida (although data on ex-felons are difficult to come by) was 1,541,602. For comparison, in 2014, 6 million ballots were cast in the Florida midterm, and Scott won by a mere 66,127 votes. One study estimates that former felons would turn out at a rate of about 24 percent in a midterm election. Assuming that level of turnout in Florida, nearly 370,000 more people would have voted — possibly costing Scott his seat.

The consequences of felon disenfranchisement are real. As I’ve noted before, voter turnout helps to determine the distribution of government, and depressed turnout means that many low-income and black counties receive less funding. In a 2003 study, Paul Martin found that counties with higher turnout receive more funding from the federal government, and, more recently, he and Michele P. Claibourn findthat “districts that vote at lower rates have less impact on their representatives’ policy positions.” That could be a part (though certainly not the full) explanation for why African-Americans aren’t represented as well as whites. Disenfranchisement also creates other problems: research suggests that restoring voting rights reducesrecidivism rates.

Ending mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement is a first step toward healing our democracy, but it is certainly not enough. Another glaring disparity is turnout among Asians and Latinos, which can partially be explained by lower registration rates among those populations. Among registered Latinos and Asians, the gaps in turnout are far lower (see chart). But that’s only the first step:nonpartisan get-outthe-vote operations, competitive districts and easier access through both early voting and increased use of technology would also boost turnout. The policies politicians advocate can also boost turnout. But the results of Weaver and Lerman’s study suggest something further: we need to make sure that government is working to the benefit of Americans. When people primarily associate the government with policing and incarceration, they are far less likely to be active in their society and community. America cannot claim to be a true and vibrant democracy with so many still denied the basic right to vote and large shares of the population are locked in cages.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

Why voting matters: non-voters have different preferences

This week the Census Bureau released their data on voter turnout in the 2014 election, and the numbers are abysmal. In 2014, only 41.9 percent of the voting age citizen population turned out, the lowest number census has recorded since they began collecting data in 1978. But these broad numbers obscure an even more important reality: that the decline in turnout between the 2012 Presidential election and the 2014 midterm was strongest among low-income people (see chart) andpeople of color.

As it happens this is also the first election since the Supreme Court struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act and conservatives rushed to pass discriminatorylaws aimed at suppressing voter turnout. There is a large body of evidence suggesting that when voting is easier, more people vote, and that voter suppression laws disproportionately impact the poor and people of color. The turnout numbers from 2014 are dramatic: At the lowest income bracket, less than 1 in 4 citizens of voting age turned out, and only half were registered to vote, a drop of 48 percent from the presidential election. At the highest bracket the Census records data for ($150,000 and above), 80 percent were registered and 57 percent voted, a drop-off of 29 percent from the presidential election. However, another data source that surveysthe wealthiest 1 percent found that in 2008, 99 percent voted, suggesting bias at the very top might be even higher.

In a previous Demos explainer, I argued that lower class bias in voter turnout would lead to more economically progressive policies and benefit the poor. In an upcoming piece, I expand on that argument with new data. One thing I examine is how policies that reduce turnout among people of color effect policy. To do so I used the American National Election Studies 2012 survey to examine differences in public opinion between white voters and non-white nonvoters. I focus on four questions about fundamental disputes about the role of government: whether government should increase service, boost spending on the poor, guarantee jobs and reduce inequality. I examine net support, meaning I subtracted the percentage of people in support of the law from the percent in favor.

As the chart above shows, the preferences of white voters are dramatically different than non-white nonvoters. While on net white voters want government to decrease services (52 percent say cut services and 24 percent say more, with 24 percent saying keep them at the same), nonwhite nonvoters overwhelmingly favor expanding services (16.8 percent, 47.1 percent and 36 percent, respectively). While a modest majority of white voters want more spending on the poor (26 percent to 24 percent with 49 percent saying keep spending the same), support among non-white nonvoters is dramatic (57.2 percent, 7.9 percent and 35 percent respectively). All told, nonvoters of color have vastly different preferences about the size and scope of government than white voters.

The divergent preferences of nonvoters mean that boosting turnout would change government policy to be more beneficial to the poor. The implications of universal voter turnout would be dramatic, as a brief examination of the international, historical and state level data suggest. Examining data from 19 countries over 22 years, Peter Lindert writes, “A stronger voter turnout seems to have raised spending on every kind of social program.” A study of Latin American countries from 1970 and 2008 finds that increasing democracy boosted spending on education, health, social security and welfare. Economists Dennis Mueller and Thomas Stratmann estimatethat if voter turnout in increase from 40 percent to 80 percent, it would reduce the Gini Coefficient (which measures inequality on a scale from 0 to 1) by .04, which isequal to the entire effect of taxes in the United States. New studies examiningdifferences in class bias (differences in turnout between the rich and poor) at the state level suggest that boosting turnout would reduce inequality by pushing policy in a more progressive direction.

Obviously, voter turnout can’t remedy all the gaps in participation in the American political system. As the chart below shows, the richest Americans engage with the political system far more across the board. But this only increases the importance for reducing the bias in voting, which is the simplest to remedy. One archaic barrier thatpolitical scientists agree reduces turnout is registration. By passing automatic voter registration, which places the responsibility for registering on governments, rather than individuals, we could easily boost turnout. Other reforms to make voting easier, such as making Election Day a holiday, non-partisan voter registration drives, and early voting periods, should also be implemented.

In addition, we must fervently fight voter suppression. As Naila Awan has noted, conservatives in North Carolina used the gutting of the VRA to ram through a bill to eliminate same day registration, early voting and pre-registration while also passing a strict voter ID law. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker has pushed for a voter ID laws thatwould disenfranchise as many as 300,000 eligible voters. Such bald attempts to suppress voting deserve to be universally condemned.

In addition, we should increase the voices of average Americans through a robust public financing system. The donor class is 90 percent white and 70 percent male.  Awhopping 42 percent of campaign contributions come from a tiny portion of donors, the 0.01 percent. Rather than 25,000 hyper-wealthy Americans dictating policy, a public financing system could increase the representation of people of color and working class people as well as women, in the donor pool. Research on the New York City public financing program suggests that it boosted diversity in the donor pool. Creating fair districts should also be a priority, because it would make every vote matter, encouraging voter turnout. Voting matters. The best evidence for why it does is how damn hard oligarchs fight to make sure you can’t.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

The election reforms that could heal American democracy

Since America’s founding, the franchise has been dramatically expanded in waves: first, universal suffrage for all men (first, through the abolition of property ownership requirements for white men, then the 15th Amendment) then the expansion of suffrage to women and finally the Voting Rights Act, which abolished poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, the franchise is still under fire, from racially biased voter ID laws and felon disenfranchisement, as well as our complex registration system. Automatic voter registration and the abolition of voter ID laws could be part of the next wave of the slow march to true democracy.

Recently, Hillary Clinton called out Republicans for their strategy of suppressing the vote and then called for automatic voting registration. While many pundits quickly chalked this up to an attempt to revive “the Obama coalition,” in fact, Clinton has been pushing for democracy reforms since before “the Obama coalition” existed. In 2005 she and Senator Barbara Boxer put forward the “Count Every Vote Act.” The law would have made same-day registration the law of the land, expanded early voting and made election day a holiday. In addition, Clinton has been fighting against felon disenfranchisement, though Rand Paul, who has a penchant for receiving praise for things he hasn’t done, has recently been garnering credit for his talk on the subject.

These three reforms — automatic voter registration, an end to voter ID, and an end to felon disenfranchisement — are hugely important. (Clinton also pushed for an expansion of early voting and making election day a holiday, no doubt significant reforms in themselves.) A new study by Michael McDonald, Enrijeta Shino and Daniel Smith suggests that reforms that make voting easier (like early voting) increase turnout, while those that make it more difficult (like voter ID laws) decrease turnout. This is important because there is growing evidence that conservatives are using voter ID laws to suppress low-income and Black voters.

I recently examined the fact that restrictive voting systems were strongly correlated with racial stereotyping. I also found that voter ID laws were correlated with racial resentment. When re-examining the evidence, I found something equally as stunning, between 2010 and 2014 the most racist states were significantly more likely to pass a photo voter ID law. Of the eight photo ID laws that were most strict, meaning that voters without acceptable identification must vote on a provisional ballot and also take additional steps after Election Day for it to be counted, all were in the top half of the racial stereotyping index.

Studies suggest that these laws are passed with partisan intent, and there is evidence that they reduce voter turnout among the poor and people of color, by acting as a de facto poll tax.

Automatic voter registration would add 50 million people to the voting rolls, according to a recent estimate by Michael Waldman, president of theBrennan Center. As my chart below, created using Census data, shows, the beneficiaries will disproportionately be low income people, who are less likely to be registered.

Will these voters turnout to vote? It’s impossible to tell, because automatic voter registration has never been tried (Oregon has passed a law, but it has yet to implemented). However, there are reasons to suspect it would. We know that registration is an impediment to voting, and reduces voter turnout. A study that randomly assigned streets for a registration drive found that streets that were targeted had higher turnout than the control. A recent literature review by elections expert Tova Wang finds laws like same-day registration and motor voter, which made registration far easier, increased turnout, particularly among the poor. Recent research by Elizabeth Rigby and Melanie Springer shows that boosting registration is the most effective way to reduce the class bias of the electorate.

In addition, we know that once people are registered, it becomes more likely they will be mobilized. Election reforms work in tandem with GOTV campaigns and other advocacy actions. In a study of state legislative elections, Peter Francia and Paul S. Herrnson find, “there is a statistically significant and positive interactive effect of campaign spending, party GOTV efforts and Election Day registration on turnout.” That is, a district with high levels of campaign spending and party GOTV efforts and Election Day registration has turnout 11 points higher than a district that has high levels of campaign spending and GOTV but not EDR. Using the ANES, I find a significant mobilization gap between registered and non-registered Americans.

In an investigation of what caused voter turnout to decline between the 1960s and the 1980s, political scientists Steven J. Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen find that a decrease in voter contacting accounts for half of the decline in turnout. The problem is, in the status quo, mobilization is biased by class. In her study of mobilization between the 1956 and 2004 elections, Andrea Louise Campbell finds that “both the Republicans and the Democrats are most likely to contact top income earners.” This was not always the case – the rate at which the Democratic Party reached out to high income voters increased nearly four-fold between 1980 and 2004. In 2004, high income Americans were nearly three times likely to be mobilized by the parties, likely a significant contributor to class bias in turnout, which has dramatically shifted policy in favor of the rich. It’s not just parties that would have more incentive to target voters: labor unions, advocacy organizations and mass participatory groups would have a new pool of Americans to try to win over. Politicians would be forced to pay attention the concerns of the millions of Americans who are currently denied political voice.

Clinton’s stand against felon disenfranchisement is also significant: by reducing turnout among low-income Americans and Blacks, who are disproportionately likely to be caught up in the criminal justice system, it diverts precious resources away from their communities. While it’s unclear whether there will be any action on Clinton’s proposals, it’s clear that their effect on democracy would be profound.

The right wing fears the vote because it knows that voting is power. In 1977, Reagan was horrified by Carter’s push for universal registration, worrying that it would make the Republican party “dead as a the Dodo bird.” Recently Noah Rothman wrote in Commentary, “It will never be popular to oppose extending voting rights to what Daniel Foster calls, perhaps uncharitably, ‘civic idiots,’ but there is something to be said for privileging the informed voter.” His argument is reminiscent of William Buckley’s famous defense of Jim Crow, “The great majority of the Negroes of the South who do not vote do not care to vote, and would not know for what to vote if they could. Overwhelming numbers of White people in the South do not vote. Universal suffrage is not the beginning of wisdom or the beginning of freedom… The problem in the South is not how to get the vote for the Negro, but how to equip the Negro-and a great many Whites-to cast an enlightened and responsible vote.”  The language is is changed, but the rhetoric is the same: supremacy before democracy.

The end result of policies that restrict the franchise is to divert political influence away from people of color and low-income people and towards wealthy whites. Eliminating barriers to voting would be nothing less than a transformation of American democracy. That’s why conservatives are so terrified.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.