It is commonplace to bemoan the low level of turnout in American elections. Voter turnout in the United States fluctuates in national elections, but it has never risen to levels of most other “established” democracies. Overall, OECD countries experience turnout rates of roughly 70%. In countries with compulsory voting – such as Australia, Belgium, and Chile – voter turnout is the highest, consistently hovering near 90% in the 2000s, in spite of generally low penalties, lax enforcement, and the secrecy of the ballot which means that an actual vote cannot be compelled in the first place. In contrast, in the U.S., about 60% of the voting-eligible population votes during presidential election years, and about 40% votes during midterm elections.
Many people argue that the low voter turnout in the U.S. is reflective of public disinterest in and disenchantment from political life. Others worry that officials elected by a declining segment of eligible voters will lack legitimacy. But despite the rhetorical support for increased voter turnout, support for specific reforms tends to break down along party lines. In recent times, Democrats have fought hard to expand access to the voting booth by pushing for reforms to increase voter registration and expand early voting. In contrast, Republicans, under the guise of combatting “voter fraud,” have pushed for new voting laws to require photo identification at the polls, reduce the number of days of early voting and tighten voter registration rules.
The conventional wisdom underpinning this divide is that high voter turnout benefits the political left (in the U.S., that means the Democratic Party). This presumption is most widely held among journalists and practicing politicians. But prominent scholars share this view as well.
The notion that higher turnout helps Democrats is sometimes called the Partisan Effects Hypothesis. It is intuitively appealing, and it consists of three main propositions. First, people who are younger, less well educated, and of a lower socio-economic status (SES) are less likely to vote than people who are older, better educated, and of a higher SES. Second, people who are younger, less well educated, and of a lower SES are more likely to vote for left-wing parties. Therefore, third, when voter turnout is lower, left-wing parties suffer as their “natural voters” are more likely to be the non-voters; as voter turnout rises and people who are younger, less well educated, and of a lower SES come into the voting electorate, left-wing parties benefit.
There is empirical evidence to support the first two propositions. Social scientists have found that abstention in the U.S. was highest among those with low income and low education; that SES is positively correlated with voter turnout; and that as at the number of participants declines in any political activity, the first to drop out are disadvantaged citizens.
As the first two components are true, logically the next component should also be true. Interestingly, however, much empirical research suggest that increased voter turnout does not necessarily benefit the Democrats. In what is arguably the best known work on the effect of turnout on vote share, DeNardo (1980) concedes that Democrats will benefit from higher turnout, on average, but argues that this effect is conditional.
DeNardo contends that the electorate is composed of two types of voters: those who regularly vote (“core voters”) and those who occasionally vote (“peripheral voters”). Relative to the core electorate (which has a bias toward voting Republican), peripheral voters (who are more likely to vote Democratic) have weaker party identifications and tend to be more vulnerable to short-term electoral forces. As such, these voters behave more like independents than dedicated partisans, and are more likely to defect from their partisan allegiances in any given election.
As an extreme but illustrative example, consider a county in which every registered voter identifies as a Democrat. In a low turnout election, the core voters are most likely to turn out to vote, and because these voters are likely to be dedicated Democrats, the vote share for the Democratic candidate should be close to 100%. However, in a high turnout election, where peripheral voters who have weaker commitments to the Democratic Party are added to the electorate, a meaningful proportion of these voters are likely to defect and vote for the Republican candidate. Thus, higher turnout in this hypothetical county will increase the vote share of the Republican candidate. (Note: The underlying mechanism works in exactly the same way if we alternate the Republican and Democratic labels).
The important implication from this, according to DeNardo, is that turnout has “two effects” – the “composition effect” of higher turnout, which helps the Democrats by drawing lower SES voters to the polls, and the corresponding “defection effect,” which has a less consistent influence and sometimes can benefit Republicans. More precisely, DeNardo contends that the positive marginal effect of turnout on Democratic vote share should decrease in size as the proportion of Democrats in the electorate increases. When Democrats are the majority party and voter turnout rises, the defection effect counteracts and may even outweigh the impact of the changing social composition of the voting electorate.
Therefore, while the notion that higher voter turnout necessarily favors the Democrats is simple and neat, it is also overly simplistic. Voters’ likelihood to vote and voters’ partisan predisposition are not independent, as the Partisan Effects Hypothesis implicitly assumes. In reality, empirical evidence regarding the partisan consequences of turnout have been far from incontrovertible. Whatever may be the case for left-wing parties in other countries, in the United States, we must be very careful in taking for granted that higher turnout will help the Democrats.
Featured Image Credit: Aaron Webb on Flickr.