< dirkmjk | Efforts to raise turnout in elections may increase turnout inequality

Efforts to raise turnout in elections may increase turnout inequality

26 January 2014

Just the other day I posted something about unequal voter turnout in Amsterdam (higher turnout in neoliberal-voting neighbourhoods; lower turnout in left-voting neighbourhoods). The conclusion would seem obvious: raise turnout, and election outcomes will likely become more representative of the preferences of Amsterdammers.

Now it turns out things may not be that simple. Based on a smart analysis (via), Ryan Enos, Anthony Fowler and Lynn Vavreck find that «get out the vote» efforts may raise turnout disproportionally among people who are more likely to vote in the first place, thus exacerbating turnout inequality.

This is not inconsequential, for these «high-propensity» citizens are far from representative of the general population. They are:

wealthier, more educated, more likely to attend church, more likely to be employed, more likely to approve of Bush, more conservative, and more Republican. They are more supportive of abortion rights and less supportive of withdrawing troops from Iraq, domestic spending, affirmative action, minimum wage, gay marriage, federal housing assistance, and taxes on wealthy famiilies.

All in all, it seems that in many respects, people who are likely to vote lean to the right compared to the general population; and that this right-wing bias may be exacerbated by efforts to raise turnout.

This is pretty sobering, but it doesn’t mean that the whole idea of raising turnout should be thrown out of the window. First of all, Enos et al. point out that their method can be used to gain a better understanding of the impact of interventions. Hopefully this will help develop interventions that reduce inequality instead of increasing it.

Second, it appears that the experiments analysed by Enos et al. randomly assigned people to treatment or control groups (I checked this for the largest experiments - the ones done by Gerber, Green & Larimer and Nickerson & Rogers). Of course, this is good practice from a research point of view.

However, it might still make sense to do voter mobilisations that specifically target a group of unlikely voters (instead of a randomly selected treatment group). For example, one might target a neighbourhood that normally has very low turnout. If I understand the findings of Enos et al. correctly, it’s conceivable that this would increase turnout inequality within the targeted neighbourhood, while at the same time reducing turnout inequality across the entire city.

Then again, perhaps we should consider compulsory voting after all (I’ll admit I used to be pretty sceptical of that idea). In a previous study, one of the authors (Anthony Fowler) analysed the impact of the introduction of compulsory voting in Australia in the first half of the 20th century. «When near-universal turnout was achieved, elections and policy shifted in favor of the working-class citizens who had previously failed to participate.» (pdf)

26 January 2014 | Categories: data, election