5 Ways Life in America Would Be Better If Everyone Voted

Low election turnout perpetuates income inequality and social injustice

Credit: Getty

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.