If Anyone Ever Tells You Your Vote Doesn't Matter, Show Them This

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

As the 2016 campaign heats up, one story that's being largely ignored is how voter turnout will affect policy. Although many people, particularly young Americans, believe that their vote doesn't matter, new research suggests nothing could be further from the truth.

In a new report titled "Why Voting Matters" for Demos, where I'm a research associate, I examine how gaps in turnout influence policy decisions, and argue that boosting turnout would lead to dramatically different policy prescriptions on a host of issues.

According to U.S. Census data, overall turnout in the 2014 midterm elections was 41.9%, but there are dramatic differences when the numbers are broken down by class, race and income level. Just 1 in 10 Asian and Hispanic Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in the 2014 midterm elections, meaning white Americans over the age of 65 were six times as likely to cast a ballot.

These differences in turnout have real consequences for how well-represented young, poor or minority Americans are in government, and taking steps to increase turnout among these groups could have tangible effects on policy.

The numbers: While 52% of those earning above $150,000 a year voted in 2014, only 1 in 4 of those earning less than $10,000 did. Not only that, but these class gaps are magnified by age. Turnout among 18- to 24-year-old voters who earn less than $30,000 was 12% in 2014. Turnout among voters over 65 who earn more than $150,000 was nearly four times higher, at 65%.

The chart below shows the differences in turnout across different race and age groups, drawn from the Demos report:

To examine how changing turnout might affect policy, I looked at the policy preferences of two groups: young Americans under 30 who don't vote, and older Americans over 50 who do. Three questions about the role of government in society seemed particularly interesting: Should the government increase services and spending? Should it increase spending on the poor? Finally, should the government guarantee jobs and a standard of living, and work to reduce inequality?

On all of these questions, young people who don't vote are more likely to choose the progressive answers, according to data from the American National Election Studies 2012 survey.

The chart below shows net support for each policy question — the percent in favor minus the percent opposed. Only 22% of older voters say government should ensure jobs and a standard of living; 52% are opposed. By contrast, young nonvoters support government action to guarantee jobs 42% to 34%.

The effects: What does this mean in terms of the policies adopted by those in elected office?

A large amount of political science research suggests that turnout matters for determining how elected representatives reflect the will of their constituents. One key study by John Griffin and Brian Newman in 2005 found that "voter preferences predict the aggregate roll-call behavior of senators while nonvoter preferences do not."

Research examining the fact that the rich are more likely to vote finds that this bias affects the likelihood of a state having a higher minimum wage, the growth of income inequality and the size and the generosity of social welfare spending. International and historical evidence also supports the case that voter turnout matters, and influences the extent of redistribution and social spending. New studies show that policymakers are most responsive to the interests and preferences of individuals who live in districts with high levels of turnout.

Higher turnout among younger voters can thus help increase the influence of the younger generation, though it won't lead to entirely equal representation. Political science research suggests that politicians are more responsive to the concerns of donors — and older Americans are more likely to make political donations.

A robust public financing system could help bridge this gap by incentivizing more people to engage in the political system while making it easier for people without large resources to do so. But while mass youth participation in both voting and contributing to campaigns would be amazing, there is more that could be done.

Encouraging more young people to run for office — particularly LGBT youth, people of color and those in the working class — could also shift policy. Evidence suggests that the fact that legislators are overwhelmingly white, male, straight and wealthy leads to policies that are biased against those groups. Initiatives like the Roosevelt National Network are helping to engage young people in substantive policymaking at more than 120 schools nationwide.

To boost voter turnout, registration remains a key barrier. In 2014, only a third of Asian-Americans and Hispanic Americans between 18 and 24 said they were registered, and only 44% of young people overall were registered. As the chart below shows, turnout among registered youth is quite a bit higher than turnout among the youth population in general:

More than half of young people couldn't vote in 2014 even if they wanted to, since they weren't registered. The solutions to the registration gap are rather simple and well-known. Same-day registration makes it possible for individuals who aren't registered to do so on election day, and studies suggest it boosts turnout. States should fully comply with the the "Motor Voter" provision of the National Voter Registration Act, which would allow individuals to register to vote when they renew their driver's license. 

In Louisiana, young people can pre-register when they get their driver's license, and are automatically added to the voter rolls once they turn 18. Finally, states could begin implementing automatic voter registration, which would shift the burden of registration away from individuals and onto the government. California is close to adopting a law that would introduce automatic registration in the state, following Oregon's lead.

Today, young Americans are graduating college with staggering debt into a bad job market because of the policy choices of adults — policy choices they currently have little influence in making. Increasing voter turnout is the first step towards a more vibrant, participatory democracy.

Correction: Oct. 9, 2015
This article previously stated that turnout among 18- to 24-year-old voters who earn less than $30,000 was 17% in 2004. In fact, turnout among this group was 12%.

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Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is a Research Associate at Demos.

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