Voter Turnout Has Nothing to do With Rising Inequality

by Benjamin Studebaker

When I talk to people about the threat rising economic inequality poses to the consumer economy, I am often told that the problem is participation. The story goes that disadvantaged groups have lower turnout, and because of this their interests are underrepresented. Bernie Sanders plans to win support for his egalitarian agenda through a “political revolution”, but all he means by that phrase is exceptionally high voter turnout:

…if Bernie Sanders becomes President of the United States, it will mean that there will be a huge increase in voter turnout. If there is a huge increase in voter turnout, our Republican colleagues may not be running the Senate or the House. So my life will be made a little bit easier. As I mentioned earlier, Louise, Republicans do well when people don’t vote. For me to get elected, we’re going to have to have a huge increase in voter turnout, and that will carry in a lot of other people in the Congress and Senate

The turnout story is especially popular among left wingers in the United States, because the US has unusually low voter turnout for a rich democracy. But the refrain is heard abroad as well–left wingers in Britain think that Jeremy Corbyn can win by raising turnout. There are right wingers who make similar arguments–Ted Cruz claims that republicans lost in 2012 because of low voter turnout among evangelical Christians. It’s a seductive argument, because we all like to believe that our own beliefs are common sense and that there’s a silent majority out there who agree with us. Unfortunately for all those who make turnout arguments, the data indicates that they are bunk.

The trouble with a lot of voter turnout research is that it myopically focuses on American politics and it makes crucial false assumptions. In 2014, Pew conducted research on the political beliefs of non-voters in America and found that despite major differences in demography (non-voters tend to be non-white, young, and poor), non-voters held political beliefs that were remarkably similar to those of voters. They were only slightly more sympathetic to Obama and the democrats than voters:

And they were only slightly more likely to approve of Obamacare, immigration reform, and welfare spending:

But at other times, American non-voters seemed to pull further left. When Pew ran a similar survey in 2010, it found a bit more distance between voters and non-voters, with non-voters pulling closer to the democrats on every issue except gay marriage:

The trouble with this research is that by focusing on non-voters’ issue stances, researchers implicitly assume if non-voters were to vote, they would vote in accordance with those issue stances. One the key things the 2010 Pew survey indicated is that as a group, non-voters don’t pay attention to what’s going on:

We already know that a lot of voters don’t fully understand the effects of the policies proposed  by various candidates and parties. Bernie Sanders is considered a profligate spender while the republican candidates are considered fiscal conservatives, even though the republican tax plans widen the deficit while Sanders’ proposed spending programs are remarkably affordable. Yet voters who are concerned about balancing budgets are far more likely to support republicans than they are Bernie Sanders. They’re judging based on what everyone is telling instead of doing the research necessary for a well-informed opinion. There are many other issues like this where people’s stated policy preferences are not reflected in their political choices. Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders among women and blacks even though Sanders has a more robust record of supporting policies that help both of these groups, especially economically. If voters can be deeply uninformed about which candidates and policies will really accomplish their objectives, non-voters are surely much worse off. This is reflected in the reality that non-voters are far more likely to support Donald Trump, according to recent research:

Another turnout challenge for Mr. Trump is that he commands the support of many people who are unlikely to vote. Civis found him winning 40 percent of the vote among those it gave less than a 20 percent chance of participating in the general election — let alone in the primary. He held 29 percent among those who had greater than an 80 percent chance of voting in the November election.

I’ve been getting increasingly suspicious of turnout arguments, which always and everywhere assume that non-voters will proceed to vote rationally for whichever candidate the person making the turnout argument thinks is best for them. To sort out whether these arguments are really any good, we need to look outside of individual national contexts and get a real sense for how turnout affects long-term policy outcomes in rich democracies. To that end, I took a dozen wealthy democracies and compared their voter turnout rates to the size of the increase in the top 1%’s share of income since that country’s respective post-war low. My turnout data on the last election is from Pew while the averages come from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. My inequality data is from the World Wealth and Income Database. What I found was striking–there is no connection whatsoever between participation and the distributive outcome. This is true both for the most recent national election:

Participation vs Inequality Last Election

And it is true when we average participation rates together for all elections in the second half of the 20th century:

Participation vs Inequality Average

The UK has seen nearly the same increase in inequality as the US despite an average participation rate that is more than 20 points higher. Countries like Australia have higher turnout than France or Japan yet see inequality increase far more rapidly. Italy has the highest average turnout, but performs worse than France, which has one of the lowest turnout rates and one of the best inequality marks. We can find examples of countries with very high turnout and low inequality growth (Netherlands & Denmark), very low turnout and low inequality growth (France & Japan), very high turnout and high inequality growth (Australia), and very low turnout and high inequality growth (USA).

Even if non-voters have a greater stated preference for equality, even if they are more likely to come from disadvantaged or disempowered groups, we have no reason to believe that getting non-voters to vote will result in policies that help these groups. This reflects an important reality that is not widely understood–the vote is only an effective means of defending a social group’s interests if that group is able to consistently select the parties, candidates, and policies that advance that group’s interests, and most groups are rubbish at this. Disadvantaged voters are terrible at it because they are especially poorly educated and don’t pay attention. When they vote, they are as likely to be manipulated into supporting people like Trump or UKIP’s Nigel Farage as they are to be used effectively in building left-wing coalitions to fix the distribution. They can also be readily and easily used by Clintons and Blairs, who pretend to care about about inequality while actually widening it rapidly, damaging the consumer base and making their economies overly reliant on finance, leading to economic instability and underconsumption:

The problem is not that people don’t vote–it’s that when they do vote, they vote badly. If your preferred candidate is waiting for a “political revolution” where some silent majority of egalitarians rises from the electoral mists as if summoned by some unholy necromancer, it may be a long wait.