What Causes Low Voter Turnout?

April 7, 2016

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

The recent unexpected successes of two insurgent presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, have taken the Democratic and Republican parties respectively by surprise. The rise of such “outsider” politicians has raised questions over whether establishment party leaders are increasingly disconnected from the preferences and concerns of their constituents. If voters have indeed begun to gravitate to non-establishment candidates for the presidency, are we likely to see similar upsets in congressional and local elections?

RSF Visiting Scholar Jonathan Nagler (New York University) is currently working on a book that examines how increases in economic inequality have also affected voter turnout in congressional elections from 1972 through 2014. Using a variety of data sources not previously available, he is studying the ideologies of congressional candidates across many elections, and exploring how turnout is affected by the ways in which voters from different income groups perceive those candidates' positions.

In an interview with the Foundation, Nagler discussed some of the factors that have affected voter turnout in both presidential and Congressional elections, and assessed whether non-voters share the preferences of voters.

Q. Your ongoing research at RSF investigates the ways in which rising income inequality has affected voter turnout across different demographics in both presidential and congressional elections. Are the preferences expressed by voters in these elections also held by non-voters? What drives the low voter turnout of those at the bottom of the economic distribution?

Nagler: The preferences of voters are different from the preferences of non-voters, particularly on economic issues. The non-voters are more likely to prefer more liberal economic policies on issues associated with people with lower incomes, such as: health insurance, union organizing, spending on schools, and raising the minimum wage.

We find that people at the bottom of the income distribution are less likely to realize how different the policies proposed by the parties are, and that this contributes to lower levels of voter turnout.

Q. How are you using new datasets to analyze voter turnout, particularly in congressional elections, and how does this work refine some of the prior research on the relationship between economic inequality and political participation?

We are looking at two sorts of large datasets. The Census Bureau's Current Population Survey lets us look at the voting patterns across demographic groups with much finer granularity than other surveys. And by using data from voting rolls of voting patterns over time we can find out what sorts of people choose to vote in presidential elections, but then abstain in congressional elections. By looking at the behavior of people across more different types of elections, and in more circumstances, we can better understand what motivates people to vote.

Q. One of the current presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders, has proposed a bill that would make Election Day a national holiday in order to boost voter turnout. What kinds of other policies and electoral reforms might increase turnout, especially for congressional elections?

Anything that makes voting easier could increase turnout. Allowing Election Day registration in more states would increase turnout. And no-fault absentee voting in more states would increase turnout. But for congressional elections, a large drag on turnout is the uncompetitiveness of most house elections.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


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