Automatic voter registration isn’t the sexiest way to start a political revolution, but it may be the most effective. The United States lags behind the rest of the rich world in turnout, but it leads the rich world in disparity in turnout across income and education levels, which has profound effects on policy. This so-called “turnout skew” further biases policy towards the rich, even more than it already would be because of the structural advantages the rich enjoy. Bolstering turnout could lead to a self-reinforcing feedback loop in the opposite direction. As I’ve shown, turnout in the United States is dramatically skewed by class, race and age, in both midterm and presidential elections. The class divides in U.S. turnout are dramatic when compared with other countries (see chart). These divides lead to turnout that is overwhelmingly anti-redistribution, and biases the political system toward policies that favor the wealthy.
As I’ve noted, among 18- to 24-year-olds earning less than $30,000, turnout was 12 percent in 2014, but among those earning more than $150,000 and older than 65, the turnout rate was five times higher, at 65 percent.
My work also shows that the people who are less likely to vote — young people, low-income people and people of color — are more favorable to a redistributive agenda.
The impacts of skewed turnout are dramatic. The question about turnout is often framed about winning elections, and so is much of the political science literature. But as I’ve argued, the question should be how turnout affects policy, not electoral outcomes. A new metastudy finds that higher voter turnout bolsters progressive policy, though not always left-leaning parties. The author, political scientist William C. Terry, writes that while “most studies find no correlation between turnout and leftist vote shares,” the literature “suggests that structural turnout rates do affect policy outcomes. In particular, most of the quasi-experimental data from large structural turnout changes, including the enfranchisement of women around the world, or the working class in Western Europe, led to more expansive social spending, poor relief and public education.” In my recent Demos report (and earlier Demos explainer), I review the literature on turnout and policy outcomes and find that there is powerful state, national and international evidence that higher turnout leads to more representative policy and a stronger safety net.