Getting Out the Vote

VotingIt is now being reported that only 36.4% of the eligible American electorate actually voted in last week’s midterm elections, a 72 year low. What do we know about this majority of eligible voters who do not turn out to vote? A PEW Research poll released just days before the midterm elections, noted that overall, these non-voters tend to be younger, more racially and ethnically diverse, and less affluent and less educated than those who do vote.

PEW Voters, non-votersEarlier this week I came across a fascinating article by Sean McElwee in Talking Points Memo that profiled the views of those who vote and those who do not vote in American elections. The results were quite revealing.

The article opens by stating, “For decades, the conventional wisdom in political science was that the voting electorate was a ‘carbon copy’ of the non-voting electorate.” This led some political scientists to argue that, “outcomes would not change if everyone voted.” The article claims that while this assertion may have been tenable 30 years ago, “wide chasms have opened up” within the American populace since then that are reflected in current voting patterns.

The first observation the article makes is that voting turnout correlates strongly with income. As the level of income rises, so does the proportion of those who vote.

Voter turnout - IncomeStatistical analysis shows that those with the lowest household incomes (not surprisingly) turn out to vote in the lowest numbers, while those with the highest incomes vote most. What really caught my attention is the fact that while just over 80% of those with annual household incomes at or above $150,000 voted in 2008, nearly 100% of the super rich (the 1%ers) voted.

Moreover, sociological surveys shows that the wealthiest one percent is more conservative in their political views than the population as a whole. This is true across the board. Not only are wealthy Republicans more conservative than Republicans in general, “even wealthy Democrats are more conservative on economic issues than Democrats on the whole.”

With higher voter participation rates being linked to higher income levels and more conservative social values, one also finds an inverse correlation between progressive social values and voter turnout. Overall, those who do not vote tend to have significantly more progressive social views than voters do.

When respondents were asked their views on progressive social issues such as making union organizing easier, providing more federal assistance for schools, having government job guarantees, and the government providing public health insurance, it was discovered that non-voters were in favor of these issues much more than actual voters.

Nonvoters - more liberal1Similarly, those who do not vote tend to have significantly more liberal economic views than voters do. When asked whether they would prefer higher taxes and more government funded services or lower taxes and fewer services, the responses given by likely voters and those who were not registered to vote were quite different. Those not registered to vote were much more in favor of higher taxes and more services, whereas the opposite was true among likely voters.

Voters - taxesIn a separate study on American attitudes toward the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), a very similar picture emerged. Far more “likely voters” than non-voters expressed the view that “the country would be better off if [the ACA] is repealed.” In addition, far more “likely voters” than non-voters felt that “government is doing too many things,” while far more non-voters than likely voters felt “government should do more to solve problems.”

Nonvoters - more liberal2The author of the article concludes that this data suggests “more turnout, particularly among low-income voters, would shift our political system to the left.”

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.

Citing a separate study by Brookman and Skovron, the author notes that in actuality this principle works in the reverse.

[C]onservative 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

This, he says, is not surprising. After all, “Politicians respond to voters, not non-voters.” In fact, studies have shown that political parties consistently overlook “low-income constituents who are unlikely to vote.”

rally-150x150However, in places where lower income earners do turn out to vote, the effect can be quite remarkable. He notes that “when low income voters turn out at a higher rate, it leads to more generous policies,” and “where the poor exercise their voice more in the voting booth relative to higher income groups, inequality is lower.”

Studies have shown that “states with smaller voting gaps [in voting turnout] across incomes had policies more favorable to the poor.” And “States with low turnout inequality have a higher minimum wage, stricter lending laws and more generous health benefits than those with high turnout inequality.”

These studies also show that “in states with higher rates of low-income voting, politicians were less inclined to pass restrictive eligibility rules for social benefits,” whereas “states with a more pronounced turnout bias spend less on social welfare.”

These findings show that when typical non-voters become mobilized, they can have a significant impact on both national and state policies.

Of course, there are some who have a vested interest in keeping this from happening. That will be the subject of my next blog: Suppressing the Vote.

Photo credit: Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images;

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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