Leighley and Nagler argue that voter turnout matters in the United States because of increasing income inequality and a persistent income bias in voting. Higher-income voters vote more, and political leaders are more responsive to their interests.
Perceived policy choices
The poor may vote less for many reasons, such as being too busy trying to make ends meet to think very much about politics. But one reason might be that they don’t perceive much difference between candidates on the issues that concern them, or that they don’t see either candidate’s position as very close to their own. Leighley and Nagler test these hypotheses by measuring two variables they call Perceived Policy Difference and Perceived Policy Alienation.
The data for this part of their study come from the American National Election Study covering elections from 1972 to 2008. They analyze the responses to two items:
- A seven-point political ideology scale from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative”
- A seven-point jobs question, with the endpoints “Some people feel that the government in Washington should see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living” and “Others think that the government should just let each person get ahead on his/her own.”
Respondents were asked about the candidates’ positions as well as their own.
Perceived Policy Difference turned out to be a better predictor of voting than Perceived Policy Alienation. For both of the above items, voters who perceived a difference between candidates were more likely to vote. Each item had an independent effect, suggesting that the more differences voters perceive between candidates, the more likely they are to vote. Low-income respondents perceived less difference in candidates than high-income respondents, which is one reason they didn’t vote as much.
Differences between voters and nonvoters
For voter turnout to matter, voters must differ from nonvoters in their positions on issues. More specifically, the authors argue that the income bias in who votes matters because voters differ from nonvoters on economic issues. This is true, for example, for the jobs question: “In 2008, there is a 10.2 percentage-point difference between nonvoters and voters believing that it is the government’s responsibility to guarantee jobs, and a 12.5 percentage-point difference between voters and nonvoters believing that people should ‘get by on their own.'” Voters also differ from nonvoters in political affiliation. In 2008, Republicans were a much larger percentage of voters than of nonvoters (42.7% vs. 26.9%), while Democrats were a slightly smaller percentage (51.7% vs. 54.1%), and Independents were a much smaller percentage (5.6% vs. 18.9%). Independents are a rather disparate bunch, by the way, since the term includes many people who just aren’t interested in politics, as well as a few with specific positions outside the political mainstream.
The authors also report on the 2004 National Annenberg Election Study, which compared the percentages of voters and nonvoters favoring certain economic policies. For each of the following policies, voters were less in favor than nonvoters:
Government health insurance for workers (68.1% vs. 82.1%)
Government health insurance for children (76.6% vs. 88.1%
Making union organizing easier (53.5% vs. 65.9%)
More federal assistance for schools (66.9% vs. 78.6%)
Increasing the minimum wage (80.5% vs. 88.3%)
Leighley and Nagler summarize their findings:
Voters are significantly more conservative than nonvoters on redistributive issues, and they have been in every election since 1972. If we had to point to our most important empirical finding of the many that we report, this is it. Voters may be more liberal than nonvoters on social issues, but on redistributive issues they are not. These redistributive issues define a fundamental relationship between citizens and the state in a modern industrialized democracy and are central to ongoing conflicts about the scope of government. It is on these issues that voters offer a biased view of the preferences of the electorate.
International studies find that the United States stands out among democracies both for its low voter turnout and the income bias in its turnout. The authors charge that our political parties are “failing to convince lower-income voters that they are offering distinctive choices on these issues. Whether perception or reality, this perceived lack of choices undermines the extent to which elections function as a linkage mechanism between citizen preferences and government policies.” Although legislative changes to make voting easier do increase general turnout a little, the authors do not find that they boost turnout very much for the lowest income quintile. What would help more, the authors believe, is giving low-income voters something more substantial to vote for.
Clearly the focus of this study on income bias in voting reflects the authors’ values. They are obviously concerned about the impact of economic inequality on democracy. Critics may fault them for looking so hard for evidence to support their theory. On the other hand, by focusing on this issue, Leighley and Nagler are able to correct some conventional wisdom in their field that turnout doesn’t matter very much. Studies that include a large smorgasbord of issues may find that it often doesn’t. But who participates in the democratic act of voting may matter a great deal in deciding how our democracy addresses a specific issue of great importance–the response of democratic government to the economic inequalities generated by the market economy. (For an interesting discussion of this very old problem, see Benjamin Radcliff’s The Political Economy of Human Happiness.) The question of who votes is inseparable from the question of whose economic interests does government serve. Does it protect the winnings of the more successful or create more opportunity for the less successful? Bill de Blasio ran away with the New York mayor’s race by attacking economic inequality specifically. Is that an antidote for voter disengagement, and a portent of things to come?