What Would Change If More People Voted

Sep 15, 2018
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All this week, NPR has been taking a look at nonvoters, the 60 percent of the population that does not typically vote in midterm elections even though they're eligible. Today - a look at the question how might the country and public policy be different if they did vote? NPR's political correspondent Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Francisco Morales is a community activist in Nevada. His mission is to get young people of color to vote, people who might vote in a presidential election but don't really bother with the midterms. I meet Morales in a working-class neighborhood in Las Vegas where he's going door to door. And at this one house, we meet a young Latina mom. She says no campaigns have come knocking, and so Morales jumps into his pitch.

FRANCISCO MORALES: A lot of the times, people don't pay attention to our - I grew up here. I went to Rancho High School too. And a lot of people don't pay attention to our neighborhoods because folks don't turn out in droves to vote.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, they don't.

MORALES: So politicians don't fear us, right? They don't think that, you know, we matter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Exactly.

KHALID: Morales is a big believer that politicians focus on issues like Medicare and Social Security because older people are reliable voters. And so if young people of color want elected officials to talk more about student debt or immigration reform, they need to vote more. Jan Leighley agrees voters and nonvoters do differ on some policies but not every policy. She's a professor at American University, who studied elections between 1972 and 2008.

JAN LEIGHLEY: The one consistent finding that we have are that voters and nonvoters have different preferences on economic policies.

KHALID: Leighley says this includes all kinds of bread-and-butter economic issues.

LEIGHLEY: So policies that talk about an expanded social safety net, unemployment issues and how to respond to them and redistributing wealth from the wealthy to the poor.

KHALID: And this isn't entirely surprising based on who does show up to vote.

LEIGHLEY: We know that the wealthy are more likely to vote than nonvoters.

KHALID: And Leighley's theory is not that every nonvoter would want more progressive economic policies. But if politicians knew that anyone would realistically step into the voting booth, they would be facing an electorate that's further to the left on economic issues.

LEIGHLEY: That means who they target and how they use their resources and their strategies to try to win would, we think, change substantially.

KHALID: But the idea that turnout would substantially change the balance of power has its skeptics. Jason Brennan is one of them. He's a professor at Georgetown University.

JASON BRENNAN: Waving a magic wand and making literally everybody vote would have a really weak effect on which party holds power.

KHALID: Brennan points to countries like Australia that have compulsory voting.

BRENNAN: Surprisingly, it has very little effect on, like, the distribution of, say, left-to-right politics. It doesn't really seem to help the left-wing party like people may think it would. It doesn't cause, say, further redistribution of tax to, like, the lower income people. It doesn't seem to have really much of an effect at all.

KHALID: This precise question - what if everyone voted? - is something Eric Shickler researched about 15 years ago. Shickler is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

ERIC SHICKLER: On average, when we looked at this in 2003, you would be talking about a one to two point increase on the Democratic side.

KHALID: So if everyone voted, you'd be talking about just a 1 or 2 percentage point change in the final results.

SHICKLER: Which was clearly enough to tip a really close election, such as, for example, Bush v. Gore but not something that would, you know, give the Democrats, say, a permanent majority in elections.

KHALID: He says it's possible some policies would change. He thinks of immigration.

SHICKLER: Up until now, turnout has been low among some of the groups that care the most about that issue. That's provided a buffer for Republicans as they have fought for restrictions on immigration.

KHALID: Shickler's research is from 2003. He says if you redo the analysis today, he thinks it'll probably show a more consistent benefit for Democrats, in part, he says, because the nonvoting population today is more Democratic than it was back then. It's younger and browner. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.