Tag Archives: compulsory voting

For the Effects of Voting, Look to Policy, Not Elections

President Obama’s recent comments on universal voting have spurred a debate about how such a policy would influence elections. On the Monkey Cage blog, John Sidesexamines the partisan consequences and argues that turnout would generally benefit Democrats, but that the effect would be modest. His own research, with Jack Citrin and Eric Schickler concludes, “although Democrats fare better in each scenario, few outcomes would have changed.” He does note that both the 2000 and 2004 elections would have been different with universal turnout.

While these questions are indeed interesting, I’m more interested in the policy consequences of universal turnout. After all, the most important political change in the last three decades hasn’t occurred between parties, but rather within parties: the Tea Party pulling the Republicans right and a more wealthy and elite Democratic party abandoning union-type policies.

So what do we know about the policy consequences?

  • William Franko, Nathan Kelly and Christopher Witko find that states with higher turnout inequality (more rich people voting than poor people) have higher income inequality. They find that the class bias in turnout affects the economic liberalism of the state legislature. Specifically, when class bias is low, the liberal opinions of the public translate into liberal policy. But when class bias is high, liberal public opinion has no effect on policy.

  • A similar study was recently performed by James Avery, who also finds, “states with greater income bias in turnout have higher levels of income inequality.” He reports that even after controlling for various factors (Gross State Product, the strength of labor, government ideology) his findings are “unambiguous.”
  • William Franko finds that states with lower turnout inequality have higher minimum wages, more generous State Child Health Insurance Program Benefits and more restrictive anti-predatory lending laws.1

  • Kim Hill and Jan Leighley find in two studies that states with a more pronounced turnout bias, social welfare spending is lower.
  • Timothy Besley and Anne Case find that, “Less costly voter registration— through motor-voter rules, or through day-of-polling registration—is generally associated with higher taxes, higher spending, and larger family assistance and workers’ compensation payments.”

In a previous Demos blog post, I briefly explored some international evidence supporting this argument. Here, I’d like to briefly explore some historical precedents.

  • John Lott and Lawrence Kenny find that extending the franchise to women increased the state government expenditures.
  • Kenny Whitby and Franklin Gilliam Jr. find that southern Democrats shifted their voting patterns on civil rights because of the mobilization of the southern black electorate.
  • Thomas Husted and Lawrence Kenny find that the elimination of poll taxes and literacy requirements lead to a “sharp” rise in welfare spending.

In none of these cases did one party permanently declare victory. Rather, the electoral calculus of one or both parties shifted. The reason we should have universal turnout is not to give one party permanent hegemony. In fact, Timothy Besley, Torsten Persson and Daniel Sturm find that party competition boosts growth, “political competition have quantitatively important effects on state income growth, state policies, and quality of Governors.” They estimate that the Voting Rights Act boosted long-term per capita income by 20 percent in states that were affected.

Universal voting would make democracy better by increasing the representativeness of politicians to the needs of those who currently don’t vote.

Note: Franko also replicated his study using validated data in the wake of Ansolabehere and Hersh.

This article originally appeared on Policyshop.

Obama Is Right: America Needs Universal Voting

Yesterday, President Obama said, in a speech at the City Club of Cleveland, “In Australia, and some other countries, there’s mandatory voting. It would be transformative if everybody voted.” Obama is right to point to voting as a mechanism to fight elite domination of politics.

The fight against payday lending has been most successful when it gets out of the legislature and is placed on the ballot box. There is strong evidence that bolstering voter turnout would lead to more progressive outcomes.

On many issues, particularly those related to class, nonvoters are more liberal than voters.

The ANES shows that across income groups non-voters are more liberal than voters. Two different studies find that states with higher class bias in turnout also have greater income inequality. Other academics have shown that class bias in turnout can explain tax regressivity, social spending and minimum wages across the states.

Internationally, research shows a similar trend. A recent study by Vincent Mahler, David Jesuit and Piotr Paradowksi studied 14 countries and found that higher turnout among the poor increased redistribution. Henning Finseraas calculated the class bias and “anti-redistribution bias” of 13 countries and found that the U.S. was the highest on both measures. (A higher class bias indicates higher voting levels among high-income voters, while a higher anti-redistribution bias indicates that those who vote are more opposed to redistribution than those who don’t.)

In Australia, the implementation of mandatory voting boosted the seat share for the Labor party and the share of spending on pensions. A study of Swedish elections findsthat higher voter turnout leads to more public expenditures. A study of the Venezuelan election system finds that when the country abolished compulsory voting it lead to rising income inequality.

Another way that Obama could foster more liberal policymaking would be to strengthen unions. As I’ve noted the American Prospect, unions not only boost turnout, but are more successful in slowing the rise of inequality than left-leaning parties. It’s possible that people who are politically active might join unions.

Daniel Stegmueller and Michael Becher find that even after controlling for factors that might lead someone to vote, joining a union will increase an individual’s chance of voting by ten percentage points. Using international data, as well as research at the state level, Patricia Davis, and Benjamin Radcliff show that by increasing turnout and organizing workers, unions hold liberal parties accountable to the working class.

So Obama is correct: compulsory voting would indeed dramatically change the country. It would push policy in a progressive direction and force both parties to put more emphasis on policies that benefit the working and middle classes.

Note: Bartels writes, “income-related disparities in turnout simply do not seem large enough to provide a plausible explanation for the income-related disparities in responsiveness documented here.” Gilens finds, “the disproportionate responsiveness to the preferences of the affluent cannot be attributed to their higher turnout rates.”

This piece originally appeared on Policyshop.