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Most Americans don’t vote in elections. Here’s why

The rise of the donor class and the influx of corporate cash have caused many voters to lose faith in politics

July 27, 2015 2:00AM ET

New U.S. Census data released on July 19 confirm what we already knew about American elections: Voter turnout in the United States is among the lowest in the developed world. Only 42 percent of Americans voted in the 2014 midterm elections, the lowest level of voter turnout since 1978. And midterm voters tend to be older, whiter and richer than the general population. The aggregate number is important but turnout among different groups is even more crucial.

Politicians are more accountable and responsive to wealthy voters, not just because rich people vote in elections, but because they are also more likely to donate to campaigns or work on them to get their candidates elected. And the effects of the gap in voter turnout are far-reaching because, for many Americans, elections are one of the only ways in which they can participate in democracy.

Boosting voter participation

Gaps in voter turnout exacerbate the United States’ already unequal political system. Its uniquely difficult electoral system is responsible for much of the low voter participation. This includes the practice of filling key offices during midterm or off-cycle elections, the odd Electoral College, a majoritarian rather than proportional system and the voter registration barrier, which leaves the responsibility for voter registration to citizens. (In most countries, the government conducts voter education and registration.) It doesn’t help that one of the two main political parties views reducing voter turnout as a key to its electoral success. Furthermore, the fact that the United States disenfranchises its many felons contributes to the low turnout.

To illustrate why the turnout gap matters, a recent study by political scientist Robert Erikson found that the median voter in 2008 in terms of income was at the 66th percentile for the general population. And as political scientist Michael Barber estimates, fewer than 3 percent of campaign donors, who give more than $200, make less than $50,000 — almost the same as the median household income in the United States. Assuming that politicians respond to the median voter, they are less likely to favor policies of redistribution than they would if they responded to the median citizen.

Families with higher incomes had higher voter turnout in 2014

Source: Census Bureau, 2015

There is also another, less recognized factor at play. In her 2005 book, “How Policies Make Citizens,” political scientist Andrea Louise Campbell argued that government structures and policies could either facilitate or deter citizen participation in politics. For example, Campbell notes that the establishment of Social Security led to increased civic participation by the elderly (especially the poor), by motivating them to defend and seek the program’s expansion. By contrast, the stigma associated with welfare programs such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) led to a decrease in voter turnout.

Other studies corroborate Campbell’s findings. A 2010 study on the role of public policies in civic and political engagement found that initiatives such as Head Start, a federal program that provides early childhood education, health, nutrition and other services to low-income children and their families, increase political participation, while welfare and public housing assistance policies reduce it. Similarly, Suzanne Mettler, author of “Soldiers to Citizens,” argues that the GI Bill, which provided many benefits to World War II veterans, boosted their civic participation. Veterans had a positive experience with the program and felt that they were treated with dignity and respect, which lead to greater political participation, not only through voting but also by boosting veterans’ involvement in civic organizations. 

Ahead of the 2016 elections, Democrats need to embrace popular progressive policies to convince potential voters that they are indeed different and that they offer real solutions.

As I’ve noted before, voters' affinity to and identification with political parties and their perception of the differences between the two parties also affect turnout. It’s deleterious to voter participation to pretend that there are not substantive differences between Republicans and Democrats. Last year, the Progressive Change Institute, which promotes progressive policy response to political issues, asked 1,500 of the so-called “drop-off” voters, who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but did not vote in the 2014 midterm election, what policies would motivate them to vote in 2016. As the chart below illustrates, potential voters listed progressive policies such as debt-free college, universal pre-K and a living wage job guarantee. 

Progressive policies excite potential voters

Source: Progressive Change Institute, 2014
Note: Categories reflect the following statements:
Debt-free college: Debt-Free College at All Public Universities
Corporate spending: Disclose Corporate Spending on Politics/Lobbying
Pre-K: Universal Pre-Kindergarten
Social security: Expand Social Security Benefits
Guaranteed jobs: Full Employment Act (Guaranteed Jobs)
Minimum wage: Full Minimum Wage for Tipped Workers
Guaranteed income: Minimum Guaranteed Income

Why don’t Americans vote?

In a 2012 USA Today poll, 59 percent of non-voters said they were frustrated by the fact that “nothing ever gets done” in government while 54 percent cited “corruption” and 42 percent pointed to the lack of difference between the two parties. About 37 percent said politics doesn’t make much difference in their lives. 

59 percent of non-registered people believe nothing ever gets done

Source: USA Today, August 2012

These results suggest that the most effective Republican disenfranchisement strategy may not be voter ID laws, but grinding government to a halt. By forcing government shutdowns, Republican leaders and lawmakers have significantly reduced voter participation to historic lows (see chart below). Less than 1 in 5 Americans believe that government works for the benefit of everyone. Furthermore, recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United v. FEC, which led to the influx of corporate cash into politics and the rise of the donor class, have together turned more people away from politics. 

More Americans believe that the government is run by a few big interests than for the benefit of all people

Source: ANES, 1964-2012

But we can’t blame only conservatives for the low voter turnout. Many Americans forgo voting because they don’t see differences between Democrats and Republicans. “Respondents who perceive a greater difference between the candidates ... are more likely to vote,” political scientists Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler, write in their book, “Who Votes Now?” “Those in the top income quintile see a larger difference between the candidates on ideology than do those in the bottom quintile.” Their findings support claims made in recent cross-national research and a previous study by political scientist David Brockington, in which he argues that when individuals feel ideological affinity to candidates, they are more likely to vote. In addition, “choice-rich environments,” in which parties span a wider ideological range, also boost voter turnout.

Ahead of the 2016 elections, Democrats need to embrace popular progressive policies to convince potential voters that they are indeed different and that they offer real solutions. Americans must also fight back against voter suppression attempts, among other things, by demanding automatic voter registration. Moreover, in order to reduce the power of money in politics and limit the influence of the donor class, lawmakers must work to increase the power of the people through public financing and strict lobbying regulations.

But these steps aren’t enough. Voters must also pressure the candidates to put forward a vision that benefits the middle and lower class. People are far more likely to participate in politics if they feel that government plays an important and beneficial role in their lives. Policies such as debt-free college, universal child-care and pre-K education, a higher minimum wage and living wage job guarantees could increase voter turnout and civic engagement. American democracy is not for sale. The voting booth is a potent force against the power of plutocracy.

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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