Tag Archives: voting

Why hasn’t democracy reduced inequality?

More than a century ago, German scholar Werner Sombart published a book entitled “Warum gibt es in den Vereinigten Staaten keinen Sozialismus?” or, “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” Today, many scholars and political thinkers ask the same question, and the answers vary broadly. While many of the answers — racism, the malapportionment of the Senate, federalism, a pro-business Supreme Court, low levels of civic participation — all have some truth and explanatory power, it remains difficult nonetheless to square democracy and inequality. Democracy was supposed to be “the road to socialism,” after all.

Now a new study by Nicholas Stephanopoulos sheds light on why “democracy” hasn’t reduced inequality: Because it doesn’t exist.

Stephanopoulos used two sources for his analysis: first, the massive database of public opinion surveys covering 2,074 questions over a 25-year period (1981-2006) compiled by Martin Gilens for his book “Affluence and Influence;” second, he combined state level exit polls from between 2000 and 2010 with an index of state policy liberalism, thus allowing him to compare the preferences of different groups with the outcomes of policy. He controlled for group size by multiplying a group’s support for a policy by its share of the population. Like Gilens, Stephanopoulos only compared policies in which preferences between the two groups being studied differed by more than 10 points.

As shown in the charts below, Gilens’ dataset demonstrates convincingly that the preferences of women, people of color and those falling into low- and middle-income brackets have almost no effect on policy. A flat line indicates that policy preferences have no influence on policy, a downward-sloping line means that a group’s policy preferences have a negative impact on policy. An upward-sloping line indicates that a group’s preferences have a positive impact on policy — that is, they get what they want. This dataset is incredibly useful, because rather than examining broad ideological measures, it directly asks: Do the people get what they want?

The answer is: Yes, if they’re rich white men.

The negative line for women is particularly troublesome. For more than half of the United States population, supporting a policy actually means policymakers are less likely to pass it. As Stephanopoulos explains,

“As male support increases from 0 percent to 100 percent, the odds of policy enactment rise from about 0 percent to about 90 percent. But as female support varies over the same range, the likelihood of adoption falls from roughly 80 percent to roughly 10 percent. When men and women disagree, then, stronger female backing for a policy seems entirely futile.”

This is absolutely insane.

While the Gilens dataset only measures policy outputs at the federal level, the second dataset examines how opinions and policy correlate at the state level. The charts below document how the ideology of different groups interact with the ideology of state policy.

As you can see, whites and Latinos have positive and statistically significant influence on policy, while blacks do not. This means that if blacks in Mississippi are more liberal than blacks in Alabama, that won’t affect the relative policies of each state. And, once again, women have no influence on policy at all, nor do low-income people. Indeed, Stephanopoulos writes that “state policy liberalism actually decreases from about 1 (or roughly Ohio’s policy set) to about -1 (or roughly New Hampshire’s) as the ideology of those making less than $30,000 varies over the same range.” That is, poor people’s preferences are negatively correlated with policy in their state.

Much of what Stephanopoulos finds meshes with other research on the subject: Other studies (particularly the work of John Griffin and Brian Newman) find that people of color have divergent preferences and that those preferences aren’t well represented. However, Stephanopoulos finds much larger gender gaps than other research has suggested. Griffin and Newman, for instance, found that gender gaps in representation were rather small. However, their method was based on how frequently women had policy “wins,” meaning that the policy they supported was enacted. This means that their methodology can’t recognize “democracy by coincidence,” which Stephanopoulos’s work suggests may be occurring.

In another work, Griffin and Newman with Christina Wolbrecht find that much of the gender gap could be explained by the fact that Republicans tend to oppose policies women support. Indeed, much of the work on class and race on representation findsthatpartiescanserve as partial explanations for representation gaps by mediating preferences. The Republican Party has become “an efficient patronage machine for whites and the top 1 percent of U.S. earners.” Because the Republican party acts for the benefit of exclusively white rich men, whereas the Democratic party must juggle a broad and diverse coalition, the party system can give rise to representation gaps. However, parties are not the sole explanatory variable, because there is strongevidence that the Democratic party has shifted to the right in order to accommodate the increasing influence of the wealthy (and the declining influence of unions). In addition, Griffin and Newman note (see chapter 5) that while Democrats represent blacks and Latinos better than Republicans, they still favor the preferences of whites.

I have emphasized voter turnout frequently as a significant explanatory variable. The fact that people of color, young people, poor people and single women all turn out at a lower rate surely contributes to these gaps. The fact that nonvoters are more progressive than voters could explain the stubborn conservatism of our politics. Among these groups, who make up what pollster Celinda Lake refers to as the “Rising American Electorate,” 42 percent are unregistered, compared with 27 percent of non-RAE. Further, only 36.1 percent voted in the 2010 midterm, compared with 56.1 percent of non-RAE.

Turnout alone likely can’t explain these gaps, since women turn out at a higher rate than men, but still have less representation. However, turnout is only part of the equation: Wealthy white men also contribute far more to campaigns; Congress is full of rich white men, as are statehouses across the nation; and activists tend to be richer than non-activists. However, as long as voter turnout remains low, politicians can respond to the affluent first and foremost without fear. As political scientists Steven Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen write, “class differences in mobilization typically aggravate rather than mitigate the effects of class differences in political resources.”

Other scholars have emphasized the fact that inequality tends to reinforce itself in public opinion. For instance, Vladimir Gimpelson and Daniel Treisman find that“perceived level of inequality—and not the actual level—correlates strongly with demand for redistribution and reported conflict between rich and poor.” In addition, Kris-Stella Trump finds that rising inequality perpetuates itself, noting that, “Public ideas of what constitutes fair income inequality are influenced by actual inequality: when inequality changes, opinions regarding what is acceptable change in the same direction.” Social experiments suggest that higher levels of inequality lead lower income people to “resign” to the levels of inequality, rather than take actions to reduce the power of the rich. However, there is still strong support for redistribution and policies to reduce inequality among Americans. The problem is that support forthesepoliciesisconcentrated among the poor, people of color and women–the groups policymakers are least likely to listen to. The net result of the preferences of women, people of color, youth and poor people being ignored is to push American policy in a more conservative direction. Claims that Americans haven’t gotten redistribution because they aren’t aware of rising inequality or are too individualistic have some truth, but they obscure more than they illuminate. In reality, Americans want redistribution, but the elites who control the political system won’t give it to them. Why hasn’t democracy reduced inequality? Because it never had the chance.

This piece originally appeared on Salon. 

The election reforms that could heal American democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Salon. 

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

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

5 Ways Life in America Would Be Better If Everyone Voted

With Election Day approaching on November 4th, Americans are faced with a perennial question: to vote or not to vote? In the last midterm election, in 2010, only 47 percent of the eligible population voted. Voting patterns typically break down along clear demographic lines: Non-voters tend to be low-income, young and people of color, while those who vote tend to older, whiter and richer than the population at large. Over the last three elections, voter turnout has been consistently 30 points higher among the highest income bracket (those earning more than $150,000 a year) than those in the lowest (those earning less than $10,000). Recent research on the top one percent of the wealth distribution – millionaires – suggests that members of this group turn out to vote at the staggering rate of 99 percent.

For a long time, political scientists believed that this voting gap was immaterial, and that voters were effectively a “carbon copy” of the non-voting population. They argued that this meant that non-voters were still adequately represented in elections. For a long time, this was likely true – but since the late 1980s the class bias in the voting electorate has increased dramatically. At the same, public opinions on economic redistribution, government and regulation have polarized, with the rich rejecting the New Deal consensus in favor of laissez-faire lunacy. This means that our current election system is not representing what Americans really think. Here are five ways that our country would be different if everyone voted:

  1. Higher Minimum Wages

In a recent study, Auburn University’s William Franko compared minimum wages in states with high and low class bias in the electorate. He found that states with a lower disparity between low-income and high-income turnout had policies more favorable to the poor. States with low turnout inequality have a minimum wage policy that is around 20 cents higher than those with high voting inequality. This shouldn’t be surprising: A recent Demos report shows that while 78 percent of the general public support a higher minimum wage, only 43 percent of the wealthy do. The recent $15 minimum wage in Seattle was only possible after a drive to get more low-income and immigrant voters registered.

  1. Lower Income Inequality

In another recent study examining all 50 states over more than three decades, 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.” They find that states with low turnout bias are more likely to have left-leaning governments that favor liberal economics policies. This finding is particularly important since recent research suggests that income distributions are increasingly decided at the state level.

  1. Better Healthcare

Franko’s research also suggests that states with lower turnout bias are more likely to adopt expansive healthcare programs for low-income children, and they tend to have more simple application processes. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising. In their study of voters and non-voters, Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler find that 51.5 percent of non-voters think that the government should provide health insurance, compared to only 44.3 percent of voters. A 2012 Pew Study found that non-voters were far more likely to support the Affordable Care Act (with 49 percent of likely voters supporting repeal, compared to only 31 percent of non-voters). The study also found that non-voters were far more likely to support Obama (47 percent of likely voters versus 59 percent of non-voters) and oppose Romney (47 percent to 24 percent). It’s no wonder Republicans have based their electoral strategy around disenfranchising voters.

  1. Stronger Laws Against Predatory Lending

Predatory lending policies were an important part of the 2008 financial crisis, and their effect lingers on today: Some 10 million homeowners still owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth. Predatory lending was particularly harmful for communities of color, which were often singled out for bad mortgages. Research shows that states with lower turnout inequality are more likely to adopt strict anti-predatory lending policies. This, again is unsurprising: Recent research suggests that the rich are especially distasteful towards lending regulation, with the wealthiest of the wealthy the most strongly opposed to regulation.

  1. More Generous Public Benefits

One of the strongest differences between voters and non-voters across all studies is that non-voters tend to prefer bigger government programs. In the Pew survey mentioned above, non-voters were significantly more likely to agree with the statement, “Government should do more to solve problems” (52 percent to 29 percent). A recent Public Policy Institute of California study found that only 41 percent of likely voters in that state preferred higher taxes and more services, while 54 percent of unregistered Californians could say the same. Two studies by Kim Hill and Jan Leighley find that states with more class bias in voter turnout have lower social welfare spending. They argue that this difference is primarily explained by low turnout among low-income voters. More recently James Avery and Mark Peffley have found that in states with lower turnout inequality, politicians were less likely to pass stricter welfare rules.

Clearly, increasing voter turnout would dramatically shift the American political landscape. John Galbraith once said, “If everybody in this country voted, the Democrats would be in for the next 100 years.” If anything, Galbraith understated the effects of full turnout. One recent study of wealthy Democrats finds that “on economic issues wealthy Democratic respondents tended to be more conservative than Democrats in the general population.” Research suggests that both Republicans and Democrats overstate the conservativeness of their constituents. Another study finds that states with higher low-income voter turnout have more liberal party policy platforms. Thomas Hansford and Brad Gomez studied more than 50 years of data and found that the “effect of variation in turnout on electoral outcomes appears quite meaningful.” Universal turnout would force both parties to push for policies that benefit youth, low-income voters and people of color. All of this suggests that one of the most radical things you could do next week is vote.

This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone. 

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.

American’s Awful, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Prison System

The United States prison system is a blight for the country. The International Center for Prison Studies estimates that America imprisons 716 people per 100,000 citizens (of any age). Thatcompares (unfavourably) with Russia (484), China (121) and Iran (284). Over two and a half million American children have a parent behind bars. A whopping 60% of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons are non-violent offenders, many of them in prison for drug charges(overwhelming African-Americans). Even while our crime rate has fallen, our incarcerated population has climbed.

Politicians win elections by being tough on crime and portraying all prisoners as violent and subhuman. Convicted felons are not allowed to vote in America, disenfranchising them and preventing them from wielding any political influence. Nearly 6 million Americans, or 2.5% of the voting age population, cannot vote because they have a felony on record.

Harvey Silverglate, a civil libertarian, has noted that with the broad laws on the books, especially those relating to technology, most Americans commit three felonies a day. These are the laws that allow the DOJ to harass people like Aaron Swartz with trumped-up charges. Silverglate argues that an overzealous prosecutor could charge almost anyone with one of the many absurd, archaic or overbroad laws on the books. Silly laws, like the infamous “three strike laws,” create the illusion of safety at a high cost: the American prison system is bad for society and dehumanizing for those who are incarcerated.

High rates of incarceration, and our inability to deal with recidivism (partially a result of high rates of incarceration) are bad for society. In 2008, the federal, state and local prison systemcost a whopping $75 billion dollars. It’s estimated that the total cost of the drug war over the last 40 years could be over $1 trillion. And that doesn’t include opportunity costs: investments that could have been made with that money, humans that could be innovating and increasing GDP, etc. There are further, unquantifiable costs in the form of less social cohesion, the breakdown of neighborhoods, and fatherless children.

Those who are incarcerated are ostracized, but also face a cruel dehumanization. Consider the widespread rape of prisoners, which remains unacknowledged in wider society except for a joke now and then.

An estimated 217,000 American prisoners are raped each year. That’s 600 new victims every day, and the results are horrifying and traumatizing. In 2010, the Department of Justicereleased a report about abuse in juvenile detention centers. The report found that 12.1% of all youth held in juvenile detention reported sexual violence; youth held for between seven and twelve months had a staggering victimization rate of 14.2%.

Dr. James Gilligan told ABC News that “the more violent, powerful inmates — are in effect being given a bribe or a reward to cooperate with the prison authorities . .. as long as they cooperate, the prison authorities will permit them to have their victims.”

Worse, state, local and federal authorities who are aware of the problem do nothing to stop it. Back in 2009, the National Rape Elimination Commission released a set of proposed standardsto reduce rape, including: make data on sexual assaults behind bars public; improve staff training, supervision and protection for vulnerable detainees; limit cross-gender searches and supervision, particularly when prisoners are undressed; and make it easier and safer for prisoners to report abuse. Here are how some correction departments responded.

The New Mexico Corrections Department submitted this in response to the proposed standards: “A simple cost-benefit analysis shows that when weighed against the twelve million dollar cost of compliance, non-compliance would be much cheaper.”

To be clear, the Department has every intention of complying with whatever standards are ultimately approved, but the fact remains that compliance with the currently proposed standards would be very expensive.

The Alabama Department of Corrections estimated that implementing these standards would cost the state $58 million dollars, but that the state could cut costs by keeping the definition of “prison rape” limited:

We strongly recommend the use of the statutory definition of ‘rape,’ as directed by PREA. The term ‘sexual abuse’ is much too broad and encompassing of incidences such as verbal harassment which is not the intent of PREA.

There is some hope for detainees. The Department of Justice released its new standards May of last year, to praise from Human Rights Watch. Prisons have until August of this year to comply, and then the Justice Department will conduct a round of audits. The new standards are welcome, but they come far too late for the far too many abused prisoners.

The saddest thing about the entire saga is what Jesse Lerner-Kinglake from Just Detention International tells me: “This abuse is preventable. Indeed, the BJS studies showed that some facilities have all but eliminated this abuse.” The problem is that no one cares enough to demand stricter standards.

The American prison system should be our greatest source of shame. The only country that imprisons more people per capita may be North Korea (estimates are obviously tough to find). That’s not a good comparison. I’ve noted here some of the causes and singled out one perncious problem, but I could have noted others. Consider the fate of the detainees held in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) in the weeks after Katrina:

As floodwaters rose in the OPP buildings, power was lost, and entire buildings were plunged into darkness. Deputies left their posts wholesale, leaving behind prisoners in locked cells, some standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests …

Prisoners went days without food, water and ventilation, and deputies admit that they received no emergency training and were entirely unaware of any evacuation plan. Even some prison guards were left locked in at their posts to fend for themselves, unable to provide assistance to prisoners in need.

Or take East Mississippi Correctional Facility, run by the private corporation GEO Group, Inc. The ACLU has recently filed a federal suit on the behalf of the prisoners alleging that prisoners defecate into Styrofoam trays and plastic trash bags because they lack functioning toilets, the cells lack working lights, prisoners are often left naked, the cells are rat-infested, medical attention is limited, and that rape, stabbings, and beatings are often committed against mentally handicapped prisoners. Gawker has obtained the letter of one prisoner who was raped and robbed at the private prison.

It’s time for reform. The voiceless and voteless prisoners and former prisoners in America need us to demand reform.

This article originally appeared on Policymic.

E-mail Sean at seandrianmc@gmail.com