Tag Archives: turnout inequality

If everyone voted, progressives would win

In preparation for the 2016 presidential election, Democrats appear united around one candidate, while the Republican contest remains far from secured. Many on the left, who view Hillary Clinton’s stances as a tame brand of liberalism, have attempted to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to run. But the progressives do not need a charismatic leader. Instead, they need to invest in unleashing the disgruntled progressive majority. A longer-term strategy for progressives should be to strengthen unions and boost turnout among politically marginalized populations.

“If everybody in this country voted,” the economist John Kenneth Galbraith said, “the Democrats would be in for the next 100 years.” There is strong evidence to support his claim. A 2007 study by Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler found that nonvoters are more economically liberal than voters, preferring government health insurance, easier union organizing and more federal spending on schools. Nonvoters preferred Barack Obama to Mitt Romney by 59 percent to 24 percent, while likely voters were split 47 percent for each, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center poll. Nonvoters are far less likely to identify as Republican, and voters tend to be more opposed to redistribution than nonvoters.

In a recent nationwide study, Stockton College professor James Avery found a strong correlation between the electorate’s class bias and the Gini coefficient, a commonly used measure of inequality. In short, the lower the turnout, the higher the class bias and the greater the support for policies that lead to inequality. His study builds on previous research by political scientists Christopher Witko, Nathan Kelly and William Franko showing how class bias in voting reinforces economic inequalities. Their findings are not confined to the U.S. Around the world, voter turnout is correlated with redistributive policies. For example, the turnout of low-income voters has been linked toregressive state tax systems and higher social spending.

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In “Regular Voters, Marginal Voters and the Electoral Effects of Turnout” University of Chicago professor Anthony Fowler found that marginal voters — those whose willingness to cast a ballot is affected by factors such as weather and the timing of elections — support liberal candidates. He estimates that 72.8 percent of those who do not vote because of weather support the Democratic Party. In fact, weather may have contributed to Electoral College victories for the Democrats in 1960 and the Republicans in 2000. He examined gubernatorial elections, which can coincide with a presidential election or a midterm year, and found that 68.2 percent of those who don’t turn out for midterm elections support Democrats. Among the 34 million people who were registered with a party but did not vote in the 2010 midterms, 63.1 percent supported Democrats, according to Fowler. And gubernatorial elections that coincide with the presidential race “increase turnout by 17.4 percentage points and the Democratic candidate’s vote share by 6.4 percentage points,” he said.

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High voter turnout benefits Democrats, but studies also show that it increases volatility and harms incumbents. The anti-incumbent effect is particularly important, because it means that all incumbent politicians, including Democrats, may be partly disinclined to support policies that will boost turnout. Democrats might also have to worry about a more progressive challenger swinging potential votes away from the party.

But can turnout be swayed? Evidence suggests so. A study of 170 countries by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance found that electoral structures dramatically affect turnout. (See figure 19.) Measures such as no-excuse absentee voting, expansive early voting and Election Day registration have increasedturnout. But in the United States, research suggests that the more black people in a county — a group that tends to vote for Democrats — the fewer early voting sites there are.

Regardless, a simple get-out-the-vote strategy is not enough. In a 2005 seminal study, political scientist Adam Berinsky found that reforms that make it easier for registered voters to cast ballots increase the socioeconomic bias of the electorate. Get-out-the-vote campaigns increase turnout only among individuals with already high propensity to vote. While these voters may still be liberal, electoral reform is needed to increase registration among nonvoters, particularly the poor. In 2012 only 52.7 percent of those with income below $10,000 were registered to vote, compared with 83.5 percent of those earning more than $150,000, according to U.S. census data. In order to address the gap in voting between those in the top and bottom income brackets, electoral reforms must affect registration.

This is why Election Day registration (EDR) and “motor voter” laws are critical to improving electoral participation. For example, in a report released last month, Demos found that if all states used a “motor voter” system, which allows voters to register at local DMVs, it would increase registration by 18 million. These measures have reduced political inequality, particularly in states with registration bias. EDR consistently leads to higher turnout.

Changing the composition of the electorate is the easiest way to shift policy to the left.

Progressives can also improve their electoral prospects with better information. First, there is the evidence from the Kaiser Family Foundation that Americans are least likely to know that reforms they support are included in the Affordable Care Act and most likely to know that reforms they oppose are included. “If the public had perfect understanding of the elements that we examined,” a group of researchers wrote in 2012, “the proportion of Americans who favor the bill might increase from the current level of 32 percent to 70 percent.” In another recent study, Fowler and Michele Margolis exposed participants (through fake op-eds) to simple facts about Republican and Democratic policy platforms on social and economic issues such as the earned income tax credit, minimum wage, abortion and same-sex marriage. “When uninformed citizens receive political information, they systematically shift their political preferences away from the Republican Party and toward the Democrats,” the researchers said.

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Changing the composition of the electorate is the easiest way to shift policy to the left. As John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira point out, what they call the “emerging democratic majority” has always existed but just hasn’t voted. Instead, Democrats should mobilize the marginalized progressive majority. There was a time when progressives saw voting rights as essential to their strategy. In 1992, California Gov. Jerry Brown told Bill Clinton that his campaign would have Brown’s “full endorsement” if Clinton supported a $100 cap on political contributions, a ban on PACs, universal registration, same-day registration and an Election Day holiday. As Joan Didion points out in “Political Fictions,” Clinton did not receive Brown’s endorsement because at the time the more centrist Democratic Leadership Council’s strategy was to “jettison those voters who no longer turned out and target those who did.”

That strategy limits the liberalism of the Democratic Party because those who less consistently turn out tend to be more liberal than those who do. In addition, it alienates low-income people, further depressing turnout and creating a self-reinforcing cycle of people becoming increasingly alienated from established politicians and increasingly unlikely to vote. Democratic politicians are wary of policies to boost turnout because of its anti-incumbent effect and the possibility of progressive challengers.

Now with Democrats on the defensive across the country, conservatives fighting full franchise and progressives realizing the limits of hero leftism, there may be an effort to mobilize the marginalized progressive majority. If they are persuaded to weigh in at the ballot box, they can sway the agenda that Democratic leaders support. As a truly great progressive, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, once said to his progressive base, “I agree with you. Now make me do it.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

The Income Gap at the Polls

In 1986, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith declared, “If everybody in this country voted, the Democrats would be in for the next 100 years.” But for decades, the consensus among scholars and journalists has been the opposite. In their seminal 1980 study on the question, using data from 1972, political scientists Raymond Wolfinger and Steven Rosenstone argued that “voters are virtually a carbon copy of the citizen population.” In 1999, Wolfinger and his colleague Benjamin Highton again came to the same conclusion: “Outcomes would not change if everyone voted.” Their argument rested upon the fact that polling data did not show large differences in opinions on most issues between those who voted and those who did not.

However, a growing literature both within the United States and internationally suggests that, in fact, policy would change rather dramatically if everyone voted.

Does this mean that Galbraith was right all along? Not exactly. The reason for the recent shift in the findings is not that the early studies were wrong, but that the preferences of voters and nonvoters are becoming increasingly divergent. In a paper published in 2007 and later expanded into a 2013 book, Who Votes Now, political scientists Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler found that wide gaps between voters and nonvoters have opened up when it comes to class-based issues. They argued further that the seeds of these differences were apparent in earlier data, but Wolfinger and Rosenstone overlooked the gaps by focusing on broad ideological labels (liberal or conservative) rather than specific policies. Voters, Leighley and Nagler found, are more economically conservative; whereas non-voters favor more robust unions and more government spending on things like health insurance and public schools.

Other data collected on the national and state level support Leighley and Nagler’s thesis.  A 2012 Pew survey found that likely voters were split 47 percent to 47 percent between Obama and Romney while non-voters preferred Obama 59 percent to 24 percent, a 35 point margin. A 2006 Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) study found that non-voters were more likely to support higher taxes and more government-funded services. They were also more likely to oppose Proposition 13 (a constitutional amendment which limits property taxes), dislike thenGov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and support affordable housing.

It so happens that the gap between voters and non-voters breaks down strongly along class lines. In the 2012 election, 80.2 percent of those making more than $150,000 voted, while only 46.9 percent of those making less than $10,000 voted. This “class bias,” is so strong that in the three elections  (2008, 2010 and 2012) I examined, there was only one instance of a poorer income bracket turning out at a higher rate than the bracket above them. (In the 2012 election, those making less than $10,000 were slightly more likely to vote than those making between $10,000 and $14,999.) On average, each bracket turned out to vote at a rate 3.7 percentage points higher than the bracket below it.

This class bias is a persistent feature of American voting: A study of 40 years of state-level data finds no instance in which there was not a class bias in the electorate favoring the rich—in other words, no instance in which poorer people in general turned out in higher rates than the rich. That being said, class bias has increased since 1988, just as wide gaps have opened up between the opinions of non-voters and those of voters.

Recent research tells us that this voting disparity—in class and in opinion—has tremendous impact on policy. State-level research suggests that higher voter turnout among the poor leads to higher welfare spending. A 2013 study found that turnout inequality directly predicts minimum wages, children’s health insurance spending and anti-predatory lending policies. And studies at the state level have found that a higher class bias in the electorate actually leads to higher levels of income inequality.

Interestingly, this doesn’t just play out on the national level. Vincent Mahler of Loyola University, who has studied international voter turnout extensively, determined that both voter turnout and inequality of turnout are strongly correlated with income redistribution (see charts).

His most recent study of voting in 14 countries, conducted with political scientists David K. Jesuit and Piotr Paradowski, found that increased turnout among the rich leads to less redistribution, while increased turnout among the poor increases redistribution. This confirms his previous two papers, which together draw on nearly four decades of data across more than a dozen countries. As both of his charts show, the United States is unique among developed countries in turnout inequality, and it has the second lowest voter turnout of all OECD countries. The chart below shows the turnout differences between the richest quintile and the poorest quintile in the United States. The average gap across the countries studied is 8.4 percentage points, while the gap in the United States is nearly three times that—23.6 percentage points.

In a fascinating paper, political scientist Henning Finseraas calculated the class bias and “anti-redistribution bias” of 13 countries. (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.) Finseraas found that, among the countries he studied, the United States tops the charts in both measures and that, across all countries studied, those who prefer redistribution are less likely to vote than those who do not.

Why does the United States have such depressed voter turnout among the poor? For one, the United States has numerous barriers to voting that don’t exist elsewhere. Nearly 3.5 million felons were barred from voting in 2014 due to felony disenfranchisement, which exists in no other country Mahler studied and which has influenced the result of Senate and presidential elections (including possibly the 2014 election). A number of countrieshave compulsory voting laws which boost turnout. Most European countries that require IDs to be shown at the polls have national ID cards that are provided for free to all citizens. The United States is also an outlier in that it doesn’t have automatic voting registration. In most countries voter registration is compulsory and therefore either universal or almost universal. The United States is also rare among developed countries in the level of politicization that occurs around voting rights.

Exit data from the 2014 midterms indicate that the class bias of the electorate remains strong. Those making under $50,000, who account for 48 percent of the population, made up only 36 percent of voters, while those making over $100,000 made up 30 percent of voters, but only 22 percent of the population. Given the almost unprecedentedvoter suppression in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder, this is not entirely surprising. Voter suppression measures disproportionately affect the poor and people of color, who do not have voter ID, struggle to get time off work and are less likely to be registered in the first place. At the same time new barriers were created, measures that are proven to decrease the class bias of the electorate, like Same-Day Registration were rolled back.

Numerous factors have been shown to contribute to the recent rise in economic inequality. For one, there’s the increasing influence of money over our political system. In 1980, the top contributor gave $1.72 million (inflation adjusted) in campaign contributions, while in 2012 Sheldon Adelson gave $58.8 million and his wife $46.6 million—more than the residents of 12 states combined. There’s also the fact that the U.S. has a majoritariansystem rather than a parliamentary one. But the evidence also suggests that wide gaps in turnout also have a significant effect on inequality, and we shouldn’t ignore it. Reducing these voting gaps and increasing democratic participation in the economy will force policymakers to consider the interests of the working-class.

This article originally appeared on Politico

Russell Brand is wrong: Voting really can change America for the better

Last year, Russell Brand declared in a New Statesman article that he had never voted because he “regard[s] politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites.” And Brand, in many ways, is right — just not about voting. A growing body of political science literature actually finds that voting is an incredibly important lever of policy change. To understand why, though, we need to start with the matter of class.

The class bias in voter turnout in America is strong. A recent study estimates that in 2008, voter turnout among the wealthiest 1 percent of the population was an astronomical 99 percent. It’s not surprising that this level of participation doesn’t hold for all tax brackets; yet the chart below still shows a startling trend. There is only a single instance over the past three election cycles of a lower income bracket having higher turnout than a higher bracket.

For a long time, political scientists weren’t worried about turnout disparities. In their seminal 1980 study on the question (using data from 1972), Raymond Wolfinger and Steven Rosenstone argued that, “voters are virtually a carbon copy of the citizen population.” Later, in a 1999 study, Wolfinger and Benjamin Highton find a slightly larger gap between voters and non-voters, but still conclude that “non-voters appear well represented by those who vote.”

However, in a more recent review of the data, Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler find “enduring and increasing” differences between voters and non-voters on issues relating to class-based issues.  They find that non-voters are far more likely to support union organizing, a job guarantee and universal health insurance.

Why the differences in the studies? It turns out, the reason is historical. Difference between voters and non-voters with regards to the size of government and redistributionweren’t as strong in the 1970s and 1980s, when the earlier studies were conducted; since then, according to Larry Bartels, the U.S. has become a world leader in class conflict over government spending. These biases began accelerating at the end of the 1980s.

Since then, the Leighley and Nagler thesis has enjoyed increasing support. A 2012 Pewsurvey revealed similar differences, with non-voters far more supportive of government intervention in the economy and far more supportive of the Affordable Care Act. A Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) study of Californians from 2006 finds that non-voters are also more likely to support higher taxes and more services. They were more likely to oppose Proposition 13 — a constitutional amendment that limits property taxes — and to support affordable housing.

Given all of this, it’s unsurprising that the current Republican electoral strategy is based around disenfranchisement through means like voter ID laws. Consider a Pew poll taken from before the 2012 election: Among “likely voters,” Obama and Romney were split, with 47 percent of voters each. Among non-voters, however, Obama had 59 percent support, compared with Romney’s 24 percent support.

 

One problem with this is that turnout inequality affects both parties — pulling the Democrats and Republicans to the right. The corollary is that voter suppression efforts pursued by Republican partisans also affect the behavior of Democrats. And there is strong evidence that voter suppression efforts increase turnout inequality.

For instance, one study finds that “state voter registration laws pose a substantial barrier” to the mobilization of low-income voters.  While 63.2 percent of citizens in the lowest income bracket (less than $10,000) are registered, a full 87.1 percent of those in the top bracket ($150,000 or more) are. Research shows that same-day registration decreases the class bias of the electorate, so rollbacks of same day registration will also harm low-income voters.

It’s important to note that the gap between registration and turnout is higher for low-income citizens. A bit more than 16 percent of registered low-income citizens don’t vote, while only 6.9 percent of registered citizens in the top income bracket don’t vote. (See chart) Much of the problem, then, is getting low-income voters  – who are hampered by voter ID laws and reduction in early voting — the the ballot box. It’s unsurprising that an investigation of Republican voter suppression efforts finds that “larger increases in class-biased turnout, indicating higher turnout among lower income voters relative to wealthy voters, is significantly associated with a larger volume of proposed legislative changes.” This finding was confirmed by a study of Indiana’s voting law by Matt A. Barreto, Stephen A. Nuño and Gabriel R. Sanchez.

Where class bias is lower, the poor benefit. Christopher Witko, Nathan Kelly and William Franko studied 30 years of data on turnout inequality and find, “where the poor exercise their voice more in the voting booth relative to higher income groups, inequality is lower.” Their results show that lower turnout inequality leads to significantly more leftist governments and significantly more liberal economic policies. In currently unpublished research, James Avery studied the period between 1980 and 2010 and finds  “unambiguous” evidence that increased turnout bias leads to “greater income inequality several years later.”

This means that the impact of voting goes beyond simply elections.

In the wake of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, long-term Democratic incumbents shifted their voting behavior to respond to the newly mobilized Southern black electorate.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.” One recent studyfinds that where there is less class bias in turnout, party policy platforms are more favorable to the poor. James Avery and Mark Peffley find that states with low-income voters turned out to vote, politicians were less inclined to pass restrictive eligibility rules for welfare.  Political scientists Kim Hill and Jan Leighley find in two studies that states with a more pronounced class bias, social welfare spending is lower. David Broockman and Christopher Skovron find that legislators tend to overstate the conservative attitudes of their constituents. This could be because their constituents tend to be wealthier. One study of wealthy citizens finds that, “on economic issues wealthy Democratic respondents tended to be more conservative than Democrats in the general population.”

Voting should only be the beginning of political change; it should not be the end. It is, however, necessary. In their study, Hill and Leighley find, “it is the underrepresentation of the poor, rather than the overrepresentation of the wealthy” that explains why states with high turnout inequality have low social welfare spending. The fight to reduce the influence of the wealthy will be a long one, but it begins at the ballot box.

So don’t listen to Russell Brand. Vote.

This article originally appeared on Salon

How To Take Back Democracy On November 4th

Bold prediction: Rising inequality of income and wealth will be the most important political battleground over the next few decades.

Just take a look at the figures. The share of income accruing to the top 1 percent increased from 9 percent in 1976 to 20 percent in 2011. The richest 0.1 percent controlled 7 percent of the wealth in 1979 and 22 percent of the wealth in 2012. Meanwhile, there are a number of studies out there showing that the most effective way to reduce this inequality would be higher taxes on income and wealth, but the rich won’t let it happen.

Consider also this: The rise of income inequality and wealth inequality are intimately connected, and causes all sorts of problem over the long term. As Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman write,

Income inequality has a snowballing effect on the wealth distribution: top incomes are being saved at high rates, pushing wealth concentration up; in turn, rising wealth inequality leads to rising capital income concentration,which contributes to further increasing top income and wealth shares.

That is, income is a flow, which quickly becomes a stock. The rich make enough money to save; in contrast middle-class and low-income workers don’t have enough money to live, so they are increasingly burdened by debt. They can’t build up wealth, which means they are deprived of opportunity. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of wealth on the top and debt on the bottom.

In a comedy bit on wealth, Chris Rock claims, “You can’t get rid of wealth.” The empirical research on the question largely supports his assertion. In “The Son Also Rises,” Gregory Clark finds that wealth remains in a family for 10-to-15 generations and notes,

Groups that seem to persist in low or high status, such as the black and the Jewish populations in the United States, are not exceptions to a general rule of higher intergenerational mobility. They are experiencing the same universal rates of slow intergenerational mobility as the rest of the population.

 

But, of course wealth and income inequality weren’t always as bad as they are today. What happened? In a word: cheating. Although many people try to explain rising inequality away by arguing we live in a winner-take-all economy or that inequality is the result of skill-biased technological change, these arguments are bunk. Inequality has been driven by public policy choices that favored the richthe decline of unions and the rise of finance. As the chart below shows, tax rates on both income and inheritance were high during the relatively equal ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and then fell dramatically paving the way for the inequality we see today (Chart Source).

The best way to reduce inequality would be to tax income and wealth. While conservatives often claim that this would reduce economic growth, such claims have very little economic support. For instance, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Stefanie Stantcheva find no correlation between economic growth and tax cuts. Because of this, they find, “the top tax rate could potentially be set as high as 83%.” (Chart Source)

Nobel Prize-winner Peter Diamond argues that the top marginal tax rate could safely breach 73 percent, and indeed, such a rate might even be “optimal.” Another recent studyfinds the top marginal tax rate could be as high as 90 percent. Republicans sometimes claim that inequality is necessary for economic growth; in fact, the evidence suggests rather the opposite is true: High levels of inequality imperil growth.

But, here’s the problem: The same political forces that allowed the 1 percent to take our political system hostage have only worsened in the past decade. As Nick Hanauer notes in a recent Intelligence Squared debate,

At the same time, the percent of — of labor — the percent of GDP devoted to labor has gone from 52 to 42.  So that difference is about a trillion dollars annually.  So that — here’s the thing you have to understand.  That trillion dollars isn’t profit because it needs to be or should be or has to be.  It’s profit because powerful people like me and [Edward Conrad] prefer it to be.  That trillion dollars could very easily be spent on wages. Or — or on discounts for consumers.  This isn’t a consequence of some magical law of economics.  This is a consequence of differentials in power.

Nick hits on a very important point: The rising concentration of economic power hascoincided with a concentration of political power. A recent paper by Adam Bonica and others illustrates that as inequality has increased, the rich have spent more money on the political system:

 

As Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright recently found that the wealthy tend to be more economically conservative than the population at large. But a particularly startling finding is that, “on economic issues wealthy Democratic respondents tended to be more conservative than Democrats in the general population.” The wealthy are usingthe political system to turn their income into wealth and then that wealth into more wealth. They’re going to keep doing it, unless we stop them.  One solution is to reduce the massive turnout gap between the rich and poor.

Studies show that states with more low-income turnout have higher minimum wages, more generous child health insurance programs and stricter anti-predatory lending policies. They also have more generous welfare benefits. The fight against inequality will be a long one, but the first step is turning out to vote — the most radical step one can take in our country is actually believing democracy is more than just an idea.

This piece originally appeared on Salon