One of the most disturbing trends in the American political system is the rapid ascent of the far right. As FiveThirtyEight editor Nate Silver recently noted, “The most conservative Republicans in the House 25 or 30 years ago would be among the most liberal members now.” In “Why Voting Matters,” my latest report for Demos, a progressive public-policy organization, I make the case that higher turnout would dramatically change policy in the United States by moderating the power of the far right.
I consulted the American National Election Studies 2012 data, focusing on differences in opinion between voters and nonvoters who identified as Republican. I began by examining the three areas of federal spending that most closely relate to the government’s role in the social safety net: Social Security, child care and subsidies for the poor. Each question asks respondents whether they want to increase, decrease or keep the same funding for each. I examine net support, which means subtracting the share of those who want to decrease spending from those who want to increase it. As the chart below shows, nonvoters were significantly more likely to support the social safety net than voters.
I also examined the rate of turnout by partisan affiliation. As the chart below shows, individuals with the strongest partisan identification were most likely to turn out to vote. In 2012, 88 percent of strong Democrats and 92 percent of strong Republicans voted, compared with 76 percent of independent Democrats and 77 percent of independent Republicans.
Finally, I explored the ideology of Republican voters and nonvoters. Among self-identified Republicans, individuals who identify as extremely conservative were most likely to vote, while those who are middle of the road were less likely. Liberal Republicans were the least likely to vote.
The data suggest that Republicans who don’t vote are far more moderate than Republicans who do and that higher turnout would lead to a more moderate Republican Party. There is a strong theoretical reason to believe that higher turnout would lead to less polarization, because marginal voters are less polarized than regular voters. In a recent study, researchers Ryan Enos, Anthony Fowler and Lynn Vavreck found that a propensity to vote strongly correlates with strong party identification and extreme ideology.
Two scholars of political polarization, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, argue that boosting turnout would push politicians to woo voters in the center, pointing to the example of Australia’s compulsory voting. As they wrote, “Australian politicians of all stripes say that knowing their party’s base will all be there, as will the base of the other side, requires them to focus on those persuadable voters in the middle.”
Similarly, in a 2012 paper, researcher Justin Valasek found that “measures to increase turnout decrease political polarization.” In an earlier working version of the paper, he points to the implementation of voting by mail in Oregon, noting that, “between 1982 and 1994 the Oregon delegation was more polarized than the national average, and in all subsequent elections, where all citizens were allowed to vote by mail, it was less polarized.” Though there is not enough data to conclusively show that voting by mail was responsible (thus it was cut from the final paper), it is certainly suggestive.
The greater influence of political donors compared with other voters can also affect polarization. A recent paper by economist Razvan Vlaicu argued that the increasing power of political donors has led candidates to pursue partisan policy goals rather than ones that have more popular support. Because donors are more polarized, if politicians are courting donors rather than other voters (or constituents), they will pursue more extreme policies. In a recent study, political scientists Seth Hill and Chris Tausanovitch found that “with respect to the policy questions in our data and the broader ideologies they represent, Americans tend to be no more distant from one another today than they were in the 1950s. The public has not ‘moved apart’ on these questions of government policy.” That is, what political polarization has occurred can’t really be attributed to the views of the general public, which have remained remarkably constant over time. For that reason, higher turnout, by wresting control of policy from a polarized donor class, could lead to more moderate governance.
Policies such as automatic voter registration could reduce polarization and make our politics more representative of the popular will.
There may also be a reinforcing effect from polarization and low voter turnout. A recent study by political scientist Jon Rogowski found that “increasing levels of ideological conflict reduce voter turnout and are robust across a wide range of empirical specifications.” This leads to a self-reinforcing cycle in which polarization pulls down turnout, further enabling polarization.
Other research also suggests polarization reduces turnout. Yale University political scientist Daniel Butler found that an incumbent’s voting “responds to the sizes of the different voting blocs in the district: increases in the proportion of independents and the size of the opposition’s base are related to increasing moderation; increases in the size of the incumbent’s base correspond to increasing extremism.” He hypothesized that higher turnout could lead to more moderate voters, causing candidates to tack toward the center.
It’s not entirely certain, however, that higher turnout would decrease polarization. It could simply bolster the left flank of American politics, as mandatory voting has in Australia and Brazil. Furthermore, the evidence that primaries lead to increased polarization is decidedly mixed.
It’s also possible that the very act of voting increase an individual’s partisanship. One recent study found that voting for a candidate leads to a stronger favorable rating for that candidate. Another found that when individuals register with a party, they become more likely to support that party.
However, even if lower turnout hasn’t caused polarization, higher turnout could still reduce it. Because polarization has been primarily driven by the increasing extremism of the right, reducing it would require finding a way to shift the Republican Party toward the center. Increased voter turnout would bring more moderate, center-right and left-leaning voters into the electorate.
To appeal to these new voters, the GOP would have to stop tossing red meat to its base and address the deeper problems facing the country. It’s likely that the new voters would skew Democratic, but because they are more likely to identify as independent and will tend to be less supportive of incumbents, both parties would be forced to fight for their votes. The number of competitive seats, which has declined dramatically in the past few election cycles, would likely increase.
Higher turnout has the possibility of weakening the donor class’s grip on policy. It could also reduce the influence of the extreme right wing on politics. It’s not surprising that the GOP, which benefits from a low-turnout, strong-donor environment, supports voting laws that tend to reduce turnout. Policies such as automatic voter registration, which would work to bolster turnout, could therefore reduce polarization and make our politics more representative of the popular will.