Who Votes Now?

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Jan E. Leighley and Jonathan Nagler. Who Votes Now? Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014

In 1980, Ray Wolfinger and Steve Rosenstone published Who Votes?, a classic text on voter turnout in the United States. They found that although turnout in presidential elections is low–often less than 60% of eligible voters–that doesn’t effect election outcomes as much as one might think. They didn’t find that voters and nonvoters were different enough in political preferences to make turnout a very large factor. Adding in the nonvoters would not change the outcomes of most elections.

Leighley and Nagler believe that new research is warranted, especially in light of increasing income inequality and the persistent income bias in voter turnout. “The share of income going to the bottom fifth of the distribution decreased from 4.1 percent in 1972 to 3.4 percent of income by 2008. During that same time the share of income going to the wealthiest fifth of the population increased from 43.9 percent of income to 50% of income.” During this period voting rates varied from about 50% for the poorest quintile to 80% for the richest quintile.

Leighley and Nagler set out to show that voters are not representative of the general population when it comes to certain policy issues, especially issues of taxing and spending that affect the distribution of wealth. Nonvoters are more likely to be low-income people who would support redistributive policies if they had an opportunity to do so. The qualification is important, since the authors believe that “the impact of increased economic inequality on turnout will be conditioned by the nature of the political choices offered by the political parties. Individuals may not be given the option by either party to substantially redistribute income from those above the median income level to those below it.” If not, they may have little incentive to vote. And since politicians are more responsive to those who vote than those who don’t, the income bias in voting perpetuates an income bias in policy. By this logic, low turnout is much more detrimental to democracy than earlier studies acknowledged.

Demographics of voting

In addition to the persistent income bias in voting, Leighley and Nagler report a large educational effect–individuals with more formal education are more likely to vote. Multivariate analysis shows that income and education each have an independent effect on voting.

The Anglo (non-Hispanic white) portion of the population declined from 83.2% to 65.6% over the election period studied, 1972-2008. Hispanics are less likely to vote, however, even after controlling for ethnic differences in income and education. African Americans are also less likely to vote, but that difference disappears after controlling for income and education. Blacks actually vote at higher rates than whites of similar socioeconomic status, and black turnout was already increasing before Barack Obama ran for president.

The old vote more than the young, with a noticeable recent increase among those over 75. While age gaps persist, voting rates for the young have been gaining on those of the middle-aged. Single people vote less than married people, even after controlling for age, but the single portion of the population has been growing as people marry later and experience more divorce.

Women used to vote less than men, but since 1984 they’ve been voting more than men.

The authors do not discuss in any detail how these changing demographics affect political party affiliation or voting preferences. The turnout of higher-income voters is no doubt crucial to Republican candidates, but Democrats might take comfort in the fact that some groups with Democratic inclinations are either growing as a share of the population (Hispanics, single people) or voting at a higher rate (women, African Americans).

Legal measures to increase turnout

The authors observe that “the United States is unique among modern democracies in the burden it puts on citizens seeking to exercise their right to vote.” Voter registration usually requires a special application process well in advance of an election. Voting often takes place within a short window of time scheduled for a workday. One approach to increasing turnout is making it easier to register or cast a ballot.

Between 1972 and 2008, most states adopted one or more innovations to make voting easier. The number of states allowing voter registration through motor vehicle departments increased from 2 to 50, as required by a new federal law; the number with “no-fault” absentee voting (voting absentee for whatever reason), went from 2 to 27; the number with in-person early voting went from 2 to 27; and the number with election-day registration went from 0 to 9.

Leighley and Nagler find small but significant effects for many of these reforms. Their quantitative model estimates that no-fault absentee voting increases turnout by 3.2%, and election-day voting increases it by 2.8%. Early voting has little effect unless the voting period is unusually long. The authors did not study the effects of rolling back any of these reforms, as Republicans in some states are now trying to do. One wonders if increases in turnout are easily reversible, or if most of the newer voters continue to participate once they get over the initial hurdle. Also not studied were new legal requirements such as voter ID.

Having reported the modest effects of legislative changes on turnout, the authors turn to their main interest, demonstrating that the income bias in turnout leaves certain economic policy positions underrepresented in our democracy. That will be the topic of my next post.

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