A look at how the world’s most powerful democracy falls short:
According to Abraham Lincoln, The United States of America was the only “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” but people have often questioned how accurately the government represents the people. One major issue with representation in the U.S. government: how can you represent the people, if the people choose not to participate? Citizens often choose not to cast a ballot. In fact, since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the percentage of the voting-age population to cast ballots in presidential elections has fluctuated between 45 and 65 percent, resulting in six of our past 10 presidents identifying as Republicans. To clarify, Republican presidential candidates have won 8 of the past 13 elections, but it is sometimes said that Democrats would benefit from higher voter turnout. This paper intends to examine if either political party benefits from less participation in democracy, because that would run counter to the intent of the U.S. government – to be representative of the people.
An important part of determining how voter turnout in the United States effects the results of presidential elections is first recognizing who already does and does not vote. One agreed upon fact is that those of higher education and wealth, along with most other high socioeconomic measurements, are more likely to vote than their counterparts of lesser resources (Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980). However, socioeconomic status does not directly correlate with political party and studies on who votes often examine what groups vote, but not whom they cast their ballot for. The strongest indicator of increase in voter turnout inside socioeconomic groupings, regardless of income level, showed to be education level (Wolfinger). This research shows that voter participation is examined acutely, but it still does not positively tie voter turnout to aiding one party or another.
Another common thought among political pundits, although sometimes said jokingly, is that Republicans should hope for poor weather – or other events that might discourage voting – on election day, which has been proven (Gomez, Hansford and Krause 2007). Republicans receive a higher voting percentage in instances where weather has reduced turnout, but a limitation of this study is that it does not encompass instances of increased voter turnout or the non-participant voting share for each party. This means that Republican voters are more likely to cast ballots in bad weather, but it does not show how others would have voted if more had participated – again leaving the hypothesis unanswered.
One contributing factor that effects turnout, regardless of candidate or election cycle, is voter suppression. Certain groups are disproportionately less likely to vote due to access. Part of the belief that an increase in voter turnout is needed stems from an idea that suppressed voters would more likely vote for candidates from the Democratic party. Prior literature on voter-suppression has concluded that while votes cannot be retroactively attributed to one party or another, an improvement in the voter-registration process would increase the representation of groups – “minorities, youth and those who move frequently” (Alvarez, Ansolabehere and Wilson 2002) – that currently have low turnout rates. While this does not prove the hypothesis that the Democratic party would be aided by an increase in turnout, these groups are often associated with the core of the party, and if they currently vote at a low rate then representation would be improved by their increased participation regardless.
The Electoral College is one system the government already uses to make sure the people are not misrepresented. Research has already concluded that currently used voting reforms do not benefit those who are currently underrepresented in the electorate – mainly because these reforms are mostly utilized by people that already vote (Berinsky 2005). Prior literature has not, however, been able to definitively say that if reform increased voter turnout, it would aid one party or another because non-participants do not lean as far to either political side (Hansford and Gomez 2010). This goes to show that research into the voting trends of unlikely voters will have to be even more extensive to accurately predict their voting habits.
One detracting argument against whether voting reform is necessary is the idea that those not participating are rational decision-makers that choose not to vote. Some studies have found that when educating people on the actual costs and benefits of voting, they are less likely to vote (Blais and Young 1999). There is also evidence that political parties have become more content with their share of the electorate and are no longer attempting to mobilize new voters (Gerber and Green 2000). These facts could prove to be very influential in any research regarding the effect of increased voter turnout. Voter turnout has also been found to be heavily swayed by the perception of the election (Arceneaux and Nickerson 2009).
At the very least, prior literature proves that any empirical study on the effects of increased voter turnout on national elections would have to account for several variables that can be hard to account for. Whether it is who votes; why they vote; how they vote; or whom they vote for, it is hard to accurately analyze the actions of voters, especially those who rarely vote. The literature also shows that voter turnout research can be inconsistent – meaning it may be implausible to accurately hypothesize anything on how increased voter turnout effects political parties.
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