Tag Archives: turnout

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.

Professionalizing Legislatures Is a Progressive Policy

In recent years, many political scientists have released eye-opening data suggesting that policymakers simply aren’t very responsive to low- and middle-income Americans. There are likely many reasons for this — partially owing to voter participation, partially owing to differences in education and very likely owing to the influence of money over politics. However, one other important factor that generally goes under the radar is legislative professionalism.

A professionalized legislature differs from a citizen legislature in several ways: Professional legislatures generally meet for a more extended period of time and are paid enough that they do not have other careers. Professional legislators have larger staffs, more money to research policy and more time to deliberate and hold hearings. Professionalized legislatures also tend to attract politicians interested in working their way to higher levels of government.

In a recent segment, John Oliver addressed the absurdity of state legislatures — and the concerns about professionalism he raises are important. As I’ve noted elsewhere, income inequality is shaped enormously at the state level. This influence has only increased in recent years, as the federal government has become more gridlocked. In a new study, Elizabeth Rigby and Megan Hatch estimate that If states had adopted more liberal policies, the increase in inequality (as measured by the Gini Coefficient) would have been 60 percent smaller — and the share going to the top 1 percent would have been halved. Inequality at the state level also has implications for representation; Patrick Flavin findsthat inequality of income is one of the most important predictors of inequality of representation. New evidence suggests that differences in legislature structure at the state level have important implications for representation.

In an influential study, Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips examined 39 policies in eight broad issue areas. They calculated the congruence of public opinion and government policy for each issue. Congruence is a measure of how responsive policymakers are to public opinion: a low congruence indicates that legislators aren’t very responsive, a high congruence indicates they are. Congruence ranges from a low of 6 percent on bilingual education to a high of 86 percent on legalizing state lotteries. The researchers also found that while state governments are “generally responsive” to public opinion, they also “effectively translate majority opinion into policy only about half the time. […] This is true even when majority are large and when salience is high.”

How can legislatures be made more responsive? The authors found, “A one standard deviation increase in professionalization increases the marginal effect of opinion by about 28 percent.” In addition, interest groups can work against the public interest, in the case that a strong interest group is opposed to a policy, the size of the majority in favor of the policy would have to be nine percentage points higher than otherwise. The opposite holds true: If an interest group favors a policy that the majority does, it will be more likely to pass. However, the work of Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens suggests that mass-based interest groups have only modest correlation with the views of most Americans and business interest groups have a negative correlation with the views of Americans, so it’s more likely that interest groups will be working against the democratic will.

Cherie Maestas finds that more professionalized legislatures are more responsive to public opinion. She finds that legislatures with the highest pay and opportunity have politicians that are most responsive to citizens. Somewhat unsurprisingly, legislatures that have full-time members with high pay are the ones where politicians are most incentivized and most able to respond to constituents. Political scientist Patrick Flavin has focused his attention on the question of equality of representation. He created an index of how equal legislatures were in responding to constituents across income groups. He tells me that his still-unfinished analysis suggests that professionalized legislatures might have more equal political representation. One reason may be that professional legislatures are less susceptible to organized lobbying interests.

In recent years, many conservatives have fought to weaken legislatures. Ben Boychuk of the right-leaning publication City Journal argues, “Priorities, ladies and gentlemen. Priorities. A Legislature with [only] 95 days to enact laws is one less likely to spend a great deal of time introducing and passing useless legislation.” Given that the economy of California is the eighth largest in the world and its legislature passes laws for nearly 40 million people, this argument is absurd. But conservatives would benefit deeply from a weaker, less organized and less well-funded legislature. Presidential hopefuly Jeb Bushendorsed a 2012 initiative to make the California legislature part-time; the initiative was also supported by Michael Reagan (son of Ronald).

It’s not entirely surprising conservatives support part-time legislatures — they want the rich and powerful to run over everyone else. This is exactly what happens. There is some evidence that professionalizing legislatures increases public spending, but it’s more likely that professionalization is a response to an increasing public sector. Research by Daniel M. Butler and David W. Nickerson suggests that when representatives receive accurate information about their constituents, they tend to vote more in line with the constituents’ preferences. It may be that a professionalized legislature can increase this responsiveness. In contrast, unprofessional legislators are more open to the influence of corporate-backed groups like ALEC. One recent study shows that in more professional legislatures with fewer time constraints, ALEC bills are less likely to be passed.

Although rarely discussed in popular media, legislative professionalism is an important way to promote representation. As inequality and policy is shaped more and more at the state level, the fact that many statehouses do not appear to well represent their constituents is important. Representatives at the state level often reject the will of the majority, and as Rigby and Wright show, this lack of representation disproportionately affects the poor. Although the citizen legislature has a certain appeal, seeming to reflect the democratic ideal, in fact such legislatures are more open to manipulation from professionalized interest groups.

This piece 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

The 1% are more likely to vote than the poor or the middle class, and it matters — a lot

Does it matter that the wealthy turnout to vote at a rate of almost 99% while those making below $10,000 vote at a rate of 49%? It sure seems like it would, but for a long time many political scientists and journalists believed it didn’t. 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.” In a 1999 study, Wolfinger and Benjamin  Highton find a slightly larger gap between voters and nonvoters, but stillconclude, “non-voters appear well represented by those who vote.”

This argument has been largely assimilated by pundits and also non-voters, 59% of whom believe “nothing ever gets done,” and 41% of whom say “my vote doesn’t make a difference anyway.”

But more recent research suggests that the logic of wealth voters is sound — and that if the poor and middle class turned out at a higher rate, policy would shift leftward on economic policy. The most importantstudy on the question is by Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler. They revisit the Wolfinger/Rosenstone thesis and find that, in fact, non-voters are not, “a carbon copy” of the voting electorate as previously assumed. They find that, “notable demographic, economic, and political changes that have occurred in the U.S. since Wolfinger and Rosenstone’s classic statement [their 1980 book, “Who Votes”].” The most important difference that Leighley and Nagler find is that:

After 1972, voters and non-voters differ significantly on most issues relating to the role of government in redistributive policies. In addition to these differences being evident in nearly every election since 1972, we also note that the nature of the electoral bias is clear as well: voters are substantially more conservative than non-voters on class-based issues.


That is, after the New Deal consensus eroded, policy views became more polarized along class lines and the class-skewed nature of the electorate began to matter considerably. Non-voters skew left on a variety of issues:

A Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) study of Californians from 2006 finds that non-voters are more likely to support higher taxes and more services. They are also more likely to oppose Proposition 13 (a constitutional amendment which limits property taxes) and to support affordable housing (a more recent study finds similarly). More recently, a 2012 Pew study that examined likely voters and non-voters finds a strong partisan difference. While likely voters in the 2012 presidential election split 47% in favor of Obama and 47% in favor of Romney, 59% of non-voters supported Obama and only 24% supported Romney. The study also found divergence on other key policy issues, including healthcare, progressive taxation and the role of government in society.

The ideological turnout gap seems strongly related to the economic divide in voting behavior. A recent study by William Franko, Christopher Witko and Nathan Kelly examined 30 years of data for all 50 states. They find no instances in which low-income voter turnout was higher than high-income voter turnout. Across midterm and presidential elections, Census data show strong gaps between turnout rates between those earning above $150k and those earning less than $10k (a 32.6 point gap in 2008, a 34.9 point gap in 2010).

There is evidence that this affects the political system. Consider a recent study by David Broockman and Christopher Skovron finds that politicians believe that their constituencies are significantly more conservative than they are. Such a bias should be impossible to sustain – politicians have strong electoral incentives to gauge their constitutents’ views correctly. Once we understand that voters are more conservative than non-voters, the puzzle disappears. Politicians’s real constituents are the people who vote — a disproportionately affluent and conservative slice of the population.

Conversely, where the electorate is less skewed policy outcomes shift left. In a recent study William Franko, Nathan J. Kelly and Christopher Witko find 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.

The design and benefit levels of  many social safety net programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), are decided at the state level, which provides a natural experiment to test how turnout inequality  affects policy. James Avery and Mark Peffley find that, in states with higher rates of low-income voting, politicians were less inclined to pass restrictive eligibility rules for social benefits. Political scientists Kim Hill and Jan Leighley find in two studies that states with a more pronounced turnout bias, social welfare spending is lower. Thus, the evidence confirms what theory would predict: closing low-income voting gaps is consequential for public policy, in favor of lower-income households.

This piece originally appeared on Vox.