In 2014, just 41.9 percent of the voting-age citizen population of the United States voted. But the people who voted are not only in the minority, they form an unrepresentative minority. Millions of Americans are too young to vote. Others are disenfranchised felons, unable to vote for health reasons, missed registration deadlines, stuck at work, dissuaded by voter ID laws. In many salient ways, voters are not like nonvoters: voters are richer, whiter, and older than other Americans. And my new report, Why Voting Matters, shows how their votes produce a government that caters to their interests—and how boosting turnout would lead to a more representative democracy. Political scientists once accepted the idea that voters were a “carbon copy” of the nonvoting population. In 1999, Benjamin Highton and Raymond E. Wolfinger summarized this consensus, writing that, “simply put, voters’ preferences differ minimally from those of all citizens; outcomes would not change if everyone voted.” More recently, though, that view has come under attack. Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler, a pair of political scientists, argue that gaps between voters and nonvoters are real and have widened, and that the divergence in their views is particularly acute on issues related to social class and the size of government. However, measures that examine a one dimensional left-right axis obscure these divides.
Census data on the 2014 midterm elections quantifies some of these gaps. While 52 percent of those earning more than $150,000 voted, only 24 percent of those earning less than $10,000 went to the polls. That divide is further magnified by age. Among 18-24 year olds earning less than $30,000 turnout was 17 percent in 2014, but among those earning more than $150,000 and older than 65, the turnout rate was nearly four times higher, at 65 percent. There were also racial gaps in voter turnout. In 2014, 46 percent of white voters turned out to vote, compared to 40 percent of black voters, and just 27 percent of Asians and Latinos.
It’s not just the demographics of voters and nonvoters that differ; so do their views. Four questions from the American National Elections Studies (ANES) data show a stark divide on issues related to economic inequality. Nonvoters tend to support increasing government services and spending, guaranteeing jobs, and reducing inequality—all policies that voters, on the whole, oppose. Both groups support spending on the poor, but the margin among nonvoters is far larger. Across all four questions, nonvoters are more supportive of interventionist government policies by an average margin of 17 points.