Eric Gay / AP

If everyone voted, progressives would win

The best way to create a progressive America is voting reform

March 17, 2015 2:00AM ET

In preparation for the 2016 presidential election, Democrats appear united around one candidate, while the Republican contest remains far from secured. Many on the left, who view Hillary Clinton’s stances as a tame brand of liberalism, have attempted to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to run. But the progressives do not need a charismatic leader. Instead, they need to invest in unleashing the disgruntled progressive majority. A longer-term strategy for progressives should be to strengthen unions and boost turnout among politically marginalized populations.

"If everybody in this country voted,” the economist John Kenneth Galbraith said, “the Democrats would be in for the next 100 years.” There is strong evidence to support his claim. A 2007 study by Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler found that nonvoters are more economically liberal than voters, preferring government health insurance, easier union organizing and more federal spending on schools. Nonvoters preferred Barack Obama to Mitt Romney by 59 percent to 24 percent, while likely voters were split 47 percent for each, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center poll. Nonvoters are far less likely to identify as Republican, and voters tend to be more opposed to redistribution than nonvoters.

In a recent nationwide study, Stockton College professor James Avery found a strong correlation between the electorate’s class bias and the Gini coefficient, a commonly used measure of inequality. In short, the lower the turnout, the higher the class bias and the greater the support for policies that lead to inequality. His study builds on previous research by political scientists Christopher Witko, Nathan Kelly and William Franko showing how class bias in voting reinforces economic inequalities. Their findings are not confined to the U.S. Around the world, voter turnout is correlated with redistributive policies. For example, the turnout of low-income voters has been linked to regressive state tax systems and higher social spending.

Difference between voters and nonvoters

Source: ANES, 2012.

In “Regular Voters, Marginal Voters and the Electoral Effects of Turnout” University of Chicago professor Anthony Fowler found that marginal voters — those whose willingness to cast a ballot is affected by factors such as weather and the timing of elections — support liberal candidates. He estimates that 72.8 percent of those who do not vote because of weather support the Democratic Party. In fact, weather may have contributed to Electoral College victories for the Democrats in 1960 and the Republicans in 2000. He examined gubernatorial elections, which can coincide with a presidential election or a midterm year, and found that 68.2 percent of those who don’t turn out for midterm elections support Democrats. Among the 34 million people who were registered with a party but did not vote in the 2010 midterms, 63.1 percent supported Democrats, according to Fowler. And gubernatorial elections that coincide with the presidential race “increase turnout by 17.4 percentage points and the Democratic candidate’s vote share by 6.4 percentage points,” he said.

Income bias and anti-redistribution bias

Higher income bias indicates more high-income voting, higher anti-redistribution bias indicates that voters are more likely to oppose redistribution than nonvoters

Source: Henning Finseraas, 2012.

High voter turnout benefits Democrats, but studies also show that it increases volatility and harms incumbents. The anti-incumbent effect is particularly important, because it means that all incumbent politicians, including Democrats, may be partly disinclined to support policies that will boost turnout. Democrats might also have to worry about a more progressive challenger swinging potential votes away from the party.

But can turnout be swayed? Evidence suggests so. A study of 170 countries by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance found that electoral structures dramatically affect turnout. (See figure 19.) Measures such as no-excuse absentee voting, expansive early voting and Election Day registration have increased turnout. But in the United States, research suggests that the more black people in a county — a group that tends to vote for Democrats — the fewer early voting sites there are.

Regardless, a simple get-out-the-vote strategy is not enough. In a 2005 seminal study, political scientist Adam Berinsky found that reforms that make it easier for registered voters to cast ballots increase the socioeconomic bias of the electorate. Get-out-the-vote campaigns increase turnout only among individuals with already high propensity to vote. While these voters may still be liberal, electoral reform is needed to increase registration among nonvoters, particularly the poor. In 2012 only 52.7 percent of those with income below $10,000 were registered to vote, compared with 83.5 percent of those earning more than $150,000, according to U.S. census data. In order to address the gap in voting between those in the top and bottom income brackets, electoral reforms must affect registration.

This is why Election Day registration (EDR) and “motor voter” laws are critical to improving electoral participation. For example, in a report released last month, Demos found that if all states used a “motor voter” system, which allows voters to register at local DMVs, it would increase registration by 18 million. These measures have reduced political inequality, particularly in states with registration bias. EDR consistently leads to higher turnout.

Changing the composition of the electorate is the easiest way to shift policy to the left.

Progressives can also improve their electoral prospects with better information. First, there is the evidence from the Kaiser Family Foundation that Americans are least likely to know that reforms they support are included in the Affordable Care Act and most likely to know that reforms they oppose are included. “If the public had perfect understanding of the elements that we examined,” a group of researchers wrote in 2012, “the proportion of Americans who favor the bill might increase from the current level of 32 percent to 70 percent.” In another recent study, Fowler and Michele Margolis exposed participants (through fake op-eds) to simple facts about Republican and Democratic policy platforms on social and economic issues such as the earned income tax credit, minimum wage, abortion and same-sex marriage. “When uninformed citizens receive political information, they systematically shift their political preferences away from the Republican Party and toward the Democrats,” the researchers said.

Support and awareness of Affordable Care Act

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2014.

Changing the composition of the electorate is the easiest way to shift policy to the left. As John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira point out, what they call the “emerging democratic majority” has always existed but just hasn’t voted. Instead, Democrats should mobilize the marginalized progressive majority. There was a time when progressives saw voting rights as essential to their strategy. In 1992, California Gov. Jerry Brown told Bill Clinton that his campaign would have Brown’s “full endorsement” if Clinton supported a $100 cap on political contributions, a ban on PACs, universal registration, same-day registration and an Election Day holiday. As Joan Didion points out in “Political Fictions,” Clinton did not receive Brown’s endorsement because at the time the more centrist Democratic Leadership Council’s strategy was to “jettison those voters who no longer turned out and target those who did.”

That strategy limits the liberalism of the Democratic Party because those who less consistently turn out tend to be more liberal than those who do. In addition, it alienates low-income people, further depressing turnout and creating a self-reinforcing cycle of people becoming increasingly alienated from established politicians and increasingly unlikely to vote. Democratic politicians are wary of policies to boost turnout because of its anti-incumbent effect and the possibility of progressive challengers.

Now with Democrats on the defensive across the country, conservatives fighting full franchise and progressives realizing the limits of hero leftism, there may be an effort to mobilize the marginalized progressive majority. If they are persuaded to weigh in at the ballot box, they can sway the agenda that Democratic leaders support. As a truly great progressive, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, once said to his progressive base, “I agree with you. Now make me do it.”

Sean McElwee is a research associate at Demos.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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