Income Inequality and Voter Turnout

What is the effect of income inequality on voter turnout in the United States? Previous research into this relationship has produced mixed results — as consensus is lacking on whether inequality reduces turnout for all income groups. According to the political science literature, little evidence exists of a direct effect of rising income inequality on widening political disparities.

The purpose of this paper is to provide more analysis on the effects of income inequality on voter turnout. Using United States (U.S) Census Bureau data on voter turnout by family income in November 2020 — I predict that higher levels of income inequality significantly reduce voter turnout.

I will be running a linear regression on my independent variable (income) and my dependent variable (voter turnout). The key independent variable of interest here is family income, which measures the total household income of all family members during the 12 months before November 2020. The key dependent variable is voter turnout — which the U.S Census Bureau found by simply asking respondents if they voted in the November 3rd elections.

This data will make it possible to analyze how one’s family income bracket effects the likelihood of them turning out to vote. We will hold age constant and look at the total voting-age population. Data in the literature indicates that political activity and political interest remains quite high well into old age. Age is included in our main dataset from the U.S Census Bureau.

This paper has several limitations. This will open avenues for future research. One potential limitation of this research is that education may be a confounding variable. Some evidence indicates that individuals that attain higher education degrees are more likely to vote in elections. While this may confound with income, it is something I plan on exploring in a future study.

Another potential limitation of this research is that race could be a confounding variable. In most general elections, the African American voter turnout rate has fallen significantly short of the white turnout rate. The relevant literature indicates that greater racial diversity is associated with lower levels of voter mobilization, weak mobilizing institutions, and higher barriers to voter participation.

Similarly, gender could be a confounding variable. U.S Census Bureau data indicates that in every U.S presidential election since 1984, women reported having turned out to vote at slightly higher rates than men. A connection could exist between being low income and not finding the time to vote as it would cost wages. Voting laws in certain states could suppress voter turnout.

The relevant literature indicates that stringent identification laws have a negative impact on the turnout of racial and ethnic minorities in primaries and general elections. Even weather could reduce voter turnout. The literature indicates that rain significantly reduces voter participation by a rate of just less than 1% per inch, while an inch of snowfall decreases turnout by almost .5%.

Literature Review
Income inequality has sharply increased in the United States since the late 1970s. The top 0.1% wealth share has risen from 7% in 1978 to 22% in 2012, a level almost as high as in 1929. Between 1978 and 2008, wealthier Americans were 65% more likely to vote than those with low income.13 In 2016, eligible voters with annual incomes of less than $50,000 voted at a rate of 55% while 80% of those with incomes of more than $150,000 voted that year.

Bartles uses survey questions in the NES Senate Election Study to measure inequalities in voter turnout. Turnout was found to be much more prevalent among affluent people than among poor people. Leighley et. al examine voter turnout in every U.S presidential election from 1972 through 2008.

The empirical evidence they found on voter turnout in the U.S shows that over a period of increasing economic inequality, the income bias of voters has remained the same — and the rich continue to vote at substantially higher rates than the poor. Rosenstone argues that when a person suffers economic adversity — scarce recourses are spent holding body and soul together — not on remote concerns like politics.

Markovich et al. measure the effect of minimum wage increases on the voting behavior of low- wage workers. They find that an 8% increase in the minimum wage is associated with a one-third of one percentage point increase in aggregate voter turnout. These results suggest that economic policy can have democratic implications.

Minimum wage increases could increase turnout among low wage workers and make the electorate more representative. By contrast, Charles et al. use country-level data in the U.S across several decades — as well as various OLS and TSLS models. They find that higher local wages and employment have no effect on presidential turnout.

Some evidence in the political science literature shows us that poor economic conditions could motivate voters to go to the ballot box. For instance, Burden et al. challenge the notion that a poor economy depresses voter participation in the United States. They investigate the relationships between unemployment and turnout using a multilevel approach that considers both individual and state level variation.

Their results suggest that the turnout gap between the employed and unemployed decreases as state unemployment increases. In other words, it appears that poor economic conditions could invigorate voter turnout rather than suppresses it.

It is important to note the potential relationship between restrictive voter registration laws and low voter turnout. Avery et. al found that electorates in states with restrictive voter registration laws are much more likely to be biased toward upper-class turnout.

This could yield unfavorable policy outcomes for the less fortunate. Hill et. al. postulate that an electorate disproportionately representative of higher- class citizens will be rewarded with public policy that will benefit the higher class at the expense of lower-class citizens.

This literature review has found that the relationship between income and turnout is ambiguous. Some scholars find that income inequality significantly reduces voter turnout. Other scholars argue that poor economic conditions may encourage voter turnout. Scholars argue that voter restriction laws lower turnout for the less wealthy. In future research, I will consider the effect of race on voter turnout.

APSA Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy. “American democracy in an age of rising inequality.” Perspectives on Politics 2, no. 4 (2004): 651–666.

Avery, James M., and Mark Peffley. “Voter registration requirements, voter turnout, and welfare eligibility policy: Class bias matters.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly 5, no. 1 (2005): 47–67.

Bartels, Larry M. Unequal democracy. Princeton University Press, 2016.

Burden, Barry C., and Amber Wichowsky. “Economic discontent as a mobilizer: unemployment and voter turnout.” The Journal of Politics 76, no. 4 (2014): 887–898.

Burden, Barry C., and Amber Wichowsky. “Unemployment and voter turnout.” In APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper. 2012.

Charles, Kerwin Kofi, and Melvin Stephens Jr. “Employment, wages, and voter turnout.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 5, no. 4 (2013): 111–43.

Crittenden, John. “Aging and political participation.” Western Political Quarterly 16, no. 2 (1963): 323–331. “Current Population Survey, November 2020 —” Accessed November 20, 2021.

“Current Population Survey, November 2020 —” Accessed November 30, 2021.

Filer, John E., Lawrence W. Kenny, and Rebecca B. Morton. “Voting laws, educational policies, and minority turnout.” The Journal of Law and Economics 34, no. 2, Part 1 (1991): 371–393.

Gomez, Brad T., Thomas G. Hansford, and George A. Krause. “The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout, and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections.” The Journal of Politics 69, no. 3 (2007): 649–63.

Leighley, Jan E., and Jonathan Nagler. Who votes now? Princeton University Press, 2013.

Markovich, Zachary, and Ariel R. White. “More money, more turnout? Minimum wage increases and voting.” (2019).

Polacko, Matthew. “Inequality, policy polarization and the income gap in turnout.” Party Politics (2021). Rosenstone, Steven J. “Economic Adversity and Voter Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 26, no. 1
(1982): 25–46.

Saez, Emmanuel, and Gabriel Zucman. “Wealth inequality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from capitalized income tax data.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 131, no. 2 (2016): 519–578. Tenn, Steven. “The effect of education on voter turnout.” Political Analysis 15, no. 4 (2007): 446–464.

Hill, Kim Quaile, and Jan E. Leighley. “Political Parties and Class Mobilization in Contemporary United States Elections.” American Journal of Political Science 40, no. 3 (1996): 787–804.

“The Consequences of Political Inequality and Voter Suppression for U.S. Economic Inequality and Growth.” Equitable Growth, February 5, 2021. political-inequality-and-voter-suppression-for-u-s-economic-inequality-and-growth/.

U.S Census Bureau. Accessed November 29, 2021. surveys/cps/tables/p20/585/table07.xlsx



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