Tag Archives: voter turnout

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.

Ferguson’s Municipal Elections Show That Voter Turnout Matters

In the wake of higher  voter turnout in Ferguson, the city council now has three Black council members, up from only one before the election. This is a welcome change. As Demos has noted, the Ferguson city council is one of the many across the country in which Blacks are severely underrepresented. Using data from the International City/County Manager’s Association (ICMA) survey, Demos finds that one in five Blacks are underrepresented in their city council.

This is important, because racial equity in representation has important implications for policy. Research suggests that Black representatives are more attuned to the concerns of Black voters, and thus represent their interests. African-Americans express more positive feelings about representation when their representative shares the same race. Using exit polls from between 1982 and 2002, Zoltan Hajnal shows that Black voters are those who most frequently vote for a losing candidate: 41% of Blacks saw their choice of president, senator and mayor all lose their election, compared to only 9 percent of whites. This means that Blacks have less voting power: candidates are less likely to try to appeal to their interests.

The result of this low voting power is that politicians simply don’t focus on the issues of importance to Black voters. In Minority Report, John Griffin and Brian Newman show that one solution is getting more people of color into office. They find that African-American members of Congress equally reflect the preferences of their Black and white constituents. Further, in some cases, descriptive representation has an impact on Black and Latino’s relative representation, “over and above district racial/ethnic composition, income, turnout, and even MC’s party affiliations.”

Ferguson shows one way to increase descriptive representation: voter turnout. However, while it was higher in the recent election, it was still only an abysmal 30% (still dramatically higher than the previous 12%). The history of Black disenfranchisement, combined with the fact that many local elections are off cyclemean that participation in these elections is abysmal. As the chart above shows, the turnout in local elections is heavily skewed toward whites and the wealthy.

But turnout matters. Zoltan Hajnal and Jessica Trounstine find, “Even after controlling for public preferences, spending capacity, and needs, the more people who turn out to vote, the more local governments are likely to spend their money on welfare, public housing, and other redistributive programs.” Griffin and Newman find that boosting turnout of African-Americans and Latinos increases representation, but that Latinos gain more than Blacks. They find that these advantages are not to bring about representational equity, but they are an important first step.

In addition, there is a problem on the supply side. In the election before this one, there was one Black candidate on the ballot (he won). In this election, there were four (two won).

Paru Shah finds that when candidates of color are on the ballot, they win at the same rate as white candidates—the problem is getting more candidates on the ballot. Once there are more people of color, more candidates of color tend run. As she told me elsewhere, “once a candidate of color has run and won, there was a tipping point.” This could well be Ferguson’s tipping point.

This piece originally appeared on Policyshop.

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.

How To Create a More Progressive America

Barring a dramatic scandal or an unforeseen event, Hillary Clinton will be the 2016 Democratic party nominee for president. While many on the left have complained about her close ties to banks and her past unwillingness to tackle inequality, such complaints are unlikely to be solved by any challenger. Progressives should instead begin creating the infrastructure to shift American politics in a more progressive direction — and do so while supporting Clinton in 2016.

To understand why progressives should push Hillary, rather than run against her, it’s important to understand some important lessons from political science. First, long periods of liberal control tend to make voters more conservative (and vice-versa). As Larry Bartels recently noted, James Stimson’s Policy Mood indicator shows that Americans are “more conservative than at any point since 1952.” (Shown in the graph below.)

 This graph demonstrates how policy mood tends to move in the opposite direction as the sitting President, becoming more liberal under Bush/Reagan and more conservative under Obama. It’s not inevitable that Americans will choose a Republican; arguments that Americans simply won’t put another Democrat in the office after two years of unified party rule are based on only a few data points.

(And it bears repeating, of course, that Al Gore won the popular vote after two Clinton terms in 2000.)

In the case of Obama, an unabashedly progressive President, Americans may well seek a slightly more moderate candidate. With Obama’s presidency domestically defined by healthcare, it’s likely voters won’t want more spending in that area; however, there could be interest in higher spending on childcare or education, two areas that Clinton has built her political career around.

In a recent Economist/YouGov Poll, about 40 percent of independents said Hillary Clinton was too liberal, and only 13 percent said “not liberal enough.”

However, Hillary benefits from having the highest net favorability among Democratic respondents, and all respondents, in fact. (Net favorability is the total favorable minus total unfavorable, the smaller bars for Webb, O’Malley and Sanders, shown below, come from their relative obscurity.)

The graphs above show two things: One, progressivism faces roadblocks in the immediate future, as the country angles for moderation after what is perceived as an emphatically liberal Obama administration; and, two, Hillary Clinton, like it or not, is in the best position of any Democratic candidate to mobilize the progressive base. This is where it becomes important to recognize that the best chance for a progressive agenda lies not in challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, but in making sure she gets the White House, and then holding her accountable once there.

In modern politics, parties have far more power than politicians. As the parties have become increasingly polarized, and their constituencies increasingly divided by class, it’s harder for middle-class or working-class voters to justify a Republican vote. The vast chasms between the two parties are so deep now that the difference between the leftmost Republican who could win the presidency and the rightmost Democrat is still large. I’ve illustrated before the massive differences in results between Republicans and Democrats in terms of promoting economic growthreducing inequality and reducing racial disparities. It’s more important to get a Democrat in office than nitpick over ideology.

Most importantly, a large portion of what Presidents do goes entirely under the radar. I’venoted before the extensive political science literature showing how Presidents affect policy by staffing bureaucratic positions, enforcing regulations and appointing judges. Many important policy choices elide journalists and many small changes, such as executive orders go unnoticed but have dramatic impacts. Further, Presidents have someinfluence over whether monetary policy focuses on boosting employment or reining in inflation. Together, these policies have dramatic impacts on growth and inequality.

All of this means that progressives should focus on ensuring a candidate that will listen to their interests wins the Presidency, rather than the perfect candidate. There’s a good case for Hillary being that candidate. Clinton has a higher favorability rating than any serious Republican contender (only Bush, Rubio and Walker have a chance of winning the nomination) and she has a dramatically high recognition rate. She’s won support across the party elites, from both the liberal and conservative wings. Given the current playing field, the only credible challenge to Hillary would likely come from someone to her right, and likely one that couldn’t win an election.

This calculus means progressives need to make sure Hillary addresses our concerns. Already, Hillary has indicated a possible move to the left, criticizing overpaid CEOs and hedge fund managers in a recent Iowa visit. But it will take sustained pressure to ensure Clinton pursues a progressive agenda once in office. For that progressives need to learn from their enemy: the Koch brothers.

In 1980, David Koch ran for President on the libertarian ticket and won a mere 1.1 percent of the vote. Chastened by his loss, he and his brother realized that the way to shift policy would be to create a libertarian infrastructure aimed at pushing Republicans to the right. Certainly, there are other factors maintaining right-wing ideology: Grover Norquist and his anti-tax pledge, Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolution, and the brutal political savvy of Mitch McConnell. However, the massive network of think-tanks, foundations, universities, fellowships that the Koch’s finance, in addition to a sophisticated polling and market research apparatus, all keep Republican politicians in line.

Progressives can’t replicate the strategy, but they can create structures that will ensure that politicians are incentivized to pursue progressive policies. That will involve focusing on three areas that will bring about a more progressive America:

1) Voter turnout

The importance of voter turnout for a progressive American cannot be understated. The chart below, created with data from Vincent Mahler shows the relationship between voter turnout and redistribution. The relationship is powerful, and as I’ve extensively documented, cross-national studies and studies within the states find that higher turnout lead to more progressive policies.

To boost turnout, progressives should invest in get-out-the-vote operations and same-day registration. In addition, stricter enforcement of motor-voter requirements could increase the number of registered voters by 18 million.

2) Labor mobilization 

For a long time, the mainstream left has taken unions for granted. Unions were seen as parochial, narrowly interested in advancing their own interests. In reality, unions provided an important check on the Democratic party, making sure it didn’t move too far to the right. Unions partially filled this role by boosting turnout. In a study with Patricia Davis, Director of the Office of Global Programs at the Department of State, Radcliff shows that their election day mobilizations push candidates and parties by increasing turnout and organizing workers, unions hold parties that benefit the working class and middle class to the left.

However, unions are currently besieged by right-to-work laws being instituted across the country, which dramatically reduce union density, and as a result, union influence. All the while, national Democrats have largely remained silent.

One of the criticisms of the idea that unions increase turnout is that the causation is actually reversed: That it isn’t a matter of union membership making people more likely to vote, but rather that people who vote are more likely to join unions in the first place. However, political economists Daniel Stegmueller and Michael Becher find that even after controlling for this effect, joining a union will increase an individual’s chance of voting by 10 percentage points. Ryan Lamare, an Assistant Professor of Labor and Employment Relations, studied the effects of unions in Los Angeles County and foundthat unions boosted turnout, particularly among Latinos.

3) State and local activist infrastructure

Finally the progressive movement needs to invest in an intellectual and advocacy infrastructure. Here, the Kochs aren’t the only people who have used this strategy; evangelicals have successfully ensured that Republicans stay steadfast on the culture war because of their extensive and well-maintained an advocacy structure. The NRA has done similar. Now, the left needs to massively mobilize at the local and state level. Here, progressives face a disadvantage: Conservatives were able to make use of Evangelical churches, gun clubs and politically active chapters like the Tea Party. Progressives have only a few similarly mobilized coalitions; but they can still be potent, as the environmental movement has recently shown.

Historian Erik Loomis recently wrote the obvious: “If progressives push [Hillary Clinton] to the left through consistent organization, she’ll swing left. If she feels more pressure from Republicans, she’ll swing right. This shouldn’t be all that hard to figure out, yet it constantly surprises us how politics actually work in this nation.” He’s correct. The problem is that movement-building is difficult. Waiting for Godot is easy.

This article originally appeared in Salon.

Republicans at a Crossroads: Win Over People Of Color, or Make Sure They Don’t Vote?

Last week’s election has seen many Republicans scoffing at the thesis, put forward by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira in 2004, that there was an“Emerging Democratic Majority” that would usher in a long period of Democratic dominance. Ross Douthat, for example, has written of an “Evaporating Democratic Majority.” The subsequent analysis has often focused on low turnout among young voters — an important story, but far from the whole thing. In fact, this election sets the stage for how the Republican Party will react to changing demographics over the next several election cycles. Will they change their policies to appeal to a how America has changed, or will they try to change who gets to vote?

The dramatic age gap in the most recent midterm election has been frequently noted in recent discussions on the midterms. While it is certainly important that only 12 percent of voters in the most recent election were under 30 and 37% were over 60, this doesn’t tell much. About 12% of voters in the 2010 and 2006 elections were under 30 as well, if anything the increasing gap is largely due to the aging of the population (and persistent gaps in youth turnout). However, while the “liberalism” of youth has been widely discussed, there are problems with the narrative, among them, the huge differencesbetween young whites and young people of color (see chart). Much of the liberalism of millennials is not that young whites are more liberal, but simply that there are fewer of them. Even with these caveats, it’s clear that much of the current Republican agenda (particularly opposition to gay marriage) is anathema to young voters, while racial appeals make voters of color who might otherwise support Republicans wary.

 

The question for Republicans is how they will respond to an increasingly diverse population and one that doesn’t support their agenda. One option, and the one that gave them the Senate this year, is massive voter suppression. They will have many more opportunities for such suppression: Before the election, Republican controlled 59 of the 98 state legislative chambers; they now control 67. That means they’ll be able to pass more ALEC-sponsored legislation to reduce reproductive rights, bust unions and cut education and health insurance. It also means that Democrats will find it difficult to win back these chambers in time for the 2020 redistricting. (Redistricting is part — though not all — of the reason for Republican stranglehold over the House.) Republicans will also have leeway to pass even more restrictive voting laws — rolling back same-day registration and early voting, passing voter ID laws and tightening restrictions on convicted felons. All of these laws are proven to shift the electorate toward conservative policies by reducing turnout among people of color, young people and low-income people. Unsurprisingly, the ones already on the books have worked, and the 2014 midtermhad lower turnout than any election since 1942 (before the Voting Rights Act).

As I’ve shown, there is a strong chance that felon disenfranchisement laws affected the outcomes of important Senate races. I also found evidence that voter ID laws (particularly those that required a photo ID) reduced turnout. These findings are support by academic studies on the question. Long story short: It’s almost certain that voter suppression efforts led to an election in which three in ten eligible citizens voted. It’s highly likely that they tilted the playing field toward conservative politicians.

Republicans as a party could likely remain viable for a while with this strategy. They control enough legislatures to effectively gerrymander the congressional map. The Senate favors sparsely populated Conservative states. Democrats are concentrated in urban areas which further solidifies Republican avantages. Republicans would have trouble getting enough voters to win the Presidency, but with control of both bottom chambers, they could still gridlock the political system. Since such gridlock primarily benefits the rich, who are the main constituency of the Republican party, this isn’t much of a problem. Further, research shows that when whites are informed that the country is becoming increasingly diverse, they show a stronger preference for the Republican party. Recentresearch by Felix Danbold and Yuen J. Huo finds the whites informed that they will no longer be the majority in 2050 are less likely to say they support diversity. Political scientist Spencer Piston tells Salon that in his research using the American National Election Studies data, “I find no relationship between age and prejudice against blacks (as measured by a stereotype battery) among whites.” This suggests that voter suppression and coded racial appeals could serve Republicans for a long time.

The other option is for Republicans to tailor their agenda to people of color. While this may seem impossible — given the recent race-baiting by a gargle of Republican candidates — it is not. Spencer Piston recently released research showing that light-skinned Latinos and Asian-Americans are more likely to support Republicans than darker-skinned Latinos and Asian-Americans. He tells Salon that this held even after controlling for income, nationality and gender. Further, in currently unpublished research, he finds that support for redistribution is not affected by skin tone. This suggests that Republicans could possibly win over some Latino voters with a conservative message, if only they reduced racial resentment. But they won’t.

As I’ve shown, the class bias in our electorate benefits the rich. One study of developed countries finds that in countries with higher turnout, governments redistribute more money. The U.S. has the second lowest rate of turnout among OECD countries, and it also, unsurprisingly, has some of the lowest levels of redistribution. As long as the Republican party serves the interests of the rich, it will work endlessly to suppress low-income voters. Further, it will hold the government in gridlock, which benefits the rich.

At the end of the day, the sad fact is that the more people who vote, the worse it is for the wealthy people who overwhelmingly support Republicans.

There were other factors at play in the Senate race, certainly. The incredible cynicism of modern conservatives — who both actively sabotage government and then complain when it doesn’t works — was important. Americans, constantly told by pundits that a President should lead, appear to be unable to understand that deep structural factors prevent himfrom doing so (a problem on both sides). Further, in many races, the liberal candidateswere simply inept, and those who ran on truly progressive agendas, like Governor Malloy of Connecticut, did well.

However, it cannot be ignored that in recent years, one political party has centered their election agenda around disenfranchising voters. Midterms are historical bad for groups that vote Democratic, but massive voter suppression is the only way to explain the Republican “wave.”  With the aid of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County,states have been able to pass legislation which cause mass disenfranchisement. There will certainly be more. As the country becomes more diverse, the Republican party has a choice: play on racial fears, stoking racial animus or try to broaden its coalition of voters. Right now, it has prefered the former. That isn’t good for democracy.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

Why Turning Out The Vote Makes A Huge Difference In Four Charts

For decades, the conventional wisdom in political science was that the voting electorate was a“carbon copy” of the non-voting electorate, leading two political scientists to argue that, “outcomes would not change if everyone voted.” Although the thesis was tenable in the 1980s and even 1990s, wide chasms have opened up on class lines, and therefore voting lines as well.

As Larry Bartels recently noted, “No other rich country even came close to matching [the U.S.] level of class polarization in budget-cutting preferences.” In a recent study with Bartels and Jason Seawright, Benjamin Page finds that the wealthiest one percent are more conservative than the population as a whole. Within their sample, the wealthiest tended to be even more conservative than the less wealthy participants. They find that even wealthy Democrats are more conservative on economic issues than Democrats on the whole. This comports with a vast literature finding that the wealthy tend to be more economically conservative and therefore likely to support Republicans (see chart).

Recent studies of the non-voting population suggests that wide gaps have opened up between voters and non-voters. In their recent book, “Who Votes Now?” Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler find that, “there are notable, consistent and substantial differences between voters and non-voters on class-based issues.” In the chart below, we can see clear differences between voters and non-voters on key economic issues.

A recent Pew study finds that non-voters are far more likely to oppose repealing Obamacare and support government “doing more things.” While likely voters were split between Obama and Romney, each with 47 percent of the vote, non-voters supported Obama by a whopping 35 points (59 percent to 24 percent).

All of this suggests that more turnout, particularly among low-income voters, would shift our political system to the left. The Median Voter Theorem postulates that democratic systems will produce policy outcomes that align with the preferences of the median voter suggests that turnout gaps as a source of policy bias toward more affluent households. Because non-voters are more economically liberal than voters, the median voter is more conservative than the electorate at large. If more low-income people voted, politicians would become more economically liberal to court the new voters. In one interesting study David Broockman and Christopher Skovron finds that politicians believe that their constituencies are significantly more conservative than they are:

conservative politicians systematically believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are by more than 20 percentage points on average, and liberal politicians also typically overestimate their constituents’ conservatism by several percentage points

 

Such a bias should be impossible to sustain – a Republican could easily win by moving slightly to the left of his opponent. However, given that the population that votes is significantly more conservative than those who do no, it’s unsurprising. Politicians respond to voters, not non-voters. In a recent study examining party platforms, Gerald Wright and Elizabeth Wright find, “a portion of the differential responsiveness we identified stems from parties overlooking low-income constituents who are unlikely to vote.”

But the evidence is not only theoretical: a large literature shows that when low income voters turnout at a higher rate, it leads to more generous policies. William Franko, Nathan Kelly and Christopher Witko examined all 50 states over more than three decades and found 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. Further evidence comes from James Avery and Mark Peffley, who find that, in states with higher rates of low-income voting, politicians were less inclined to pass restrictive eligibility rules for social benefits. Two studies by Kim Hill and Jan Leighley find shows that states with a more pronounced turnout bias spend less on social welfare.

When black voters mobilized in the wake of the Voting Rights Act, Kenny Whitby and Franklin Gilliam find, “long-term Democratic incumbents have altered their voting patterns due in part to the mobilization and empowerment of the southern black electorate.” And it’s not only policy that would be affected. 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.”

When voter turnout is discussed in public it is often treated as a civic obligation, rather than a means to advance individual interests. Republican candidates often denounce low-income voters for voting for the party that best advances their class interests (while at the same time supporting massive tax cuts for their rich constituents). Yet when Benjamin Page interview the rich he finds that they, “acknowledged a focus on fairly narrow economic self-interest” when discussing their engagement in the political process. In this way, the recent Lil’ Jon video, “Turnout For What,” while tacky, has reframed the voting as a means to forward political interests, rather than as a civic obligation. Since some 41 percent of non-voters claim that their vote wouldn’t matter, this message is important. It’s also important to remove barriers to voting. Research by Jame Avery and Mark Peffley finds, “states with restrictive voter registration laws are much more likely to be biased toward upper-class turnout.” In contrast, states that have adopted same-day registration and vigorously enforced the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) have lower levels of class bias in their electorate. Research also suggests that unions are an important mechanism for low and middle income voters to engage with the political process. Attempts to disempower than should also be viewed through the lens of voter suppression.

Increasing voter turnout won’t solve the manifold ways the wealthy control the political process. However, it is an important first step toward a more equal democracy and would bring force politicians to consider the interests of low-income voters.

This piece originally appeared on Talking Points Memo