Voting and Income
University of California, Los Angeles
Voter turnout in the United States is vastly unequal: richer people are more likely to vote than poorer people. If the poor are less likely to vote then they have a lower probability of having their interests and preferences reflected in public policy. While the association between higher family incomes and greater voter turnout is well documented, the reason for this relationship is not fully understood. Understanding what drives the relationship between higher incomes and voting could help address this form of political inequality and, more generally, provide insight into how to increase political participation in the democratic process.
Understanding what drives the relationship between higher incomes and voting could help address this form of political inequality.
- The percentage of people who vote in the United States is low by international standards. The United States ranks 26th out of the 32 countries that constitute the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.) in voter turnout. Roughly about 60 percent of eligible people voted in the United States during recent presidential elections. Participation tends to be lower during midterm congressional elections with only about 40 percent of eligible voters participating — though the 2018 midterm elections broke from this trend, with almost 50 percent of eligible voters participating (see here for information on voter turnout by election year).
- Voter participation increases with family income. During the 2016 presidential election, for instance, there was a clear positive association between family income and participation in voting (see chart). The 48 percent voting participation rate for families in the lowest income category in 2016 was a bit more than half of the 86 percent rate for families in the highest income category. The ratio of differences across income groups is qualitatively similar in other election years as well.
- The fact that higher income is associated with greater voter turnout does not necessarily mean that having a higher income causes people to be more likely to vote. In theory, there are reasons why higher incomes could make people more likely to vote. Voting can be a costly activity. Doing so requires time, skills, information, a certain level of health, and access to transportation, among others. It is possible that having higher incomes provides people with resources that make the activity of voting easier. But there are other possible interpretations regarding how income might affect voting that point in a different direction: if voting requires taking time off, this can be more costly for people who earn more (as the opportunity cost of their time is higher).
- Alternatively, it is possible that other factors that tend to be associated with higher incomes — such as higher levels of education, for instance — underlie the association between higher incomes and voter turnout. Education provides skills that make it easier for people to consume political information. Beyond resources and skills, education might also provide people with a social context that makes it more likely to participate in voting. If those with higher levels of education feel a greater sense of civic duty, or have a stronger belief in the benefits of voting, this would contribute to the correlation between income and voting.
- Would increasing household income lead to increased voter participation? One way to try to isolate the effect of higher income on voter participation is to examine what happens to voter turnout after an external change in household income. In recent work my colleagues and I examine the effect of an unexpected and permanent increase in household incomes of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina on voter participation. As a result of a casino opening on the Eastern Cherokee reservation, these households enjoyed a windfall increase in income that was unrelated to education, disabilities, income level, marital status or the presence of children. All adult enrolled tribal members were eligible to receive cash transfers from casino revenues that averaged $4,700 a year (in 2000 dollars). We find that the increase in income did not have an effect on parents' voting behavior, as there was no change in their pattern of voting after the casino opened. However, there was a marked increase in the voting behavior of children from the initially poorest families once they are eligible to vote as compared to groups of other children that were otherwise similar but did not receive that windfall. The children benefiting from the cash transfers had higher levels of education as adults than similar children who did not, which suggests that the subsequent increase in voting may be due to the higher income being devoted to more education for the children. Another possible source of this result is that the families that received the extra income were less likely to move, and therefore these families may have enjoyed a greater sense of engagement in their communities boosting their civic participation.
What this Means:
Democracy is predicated on open elections and individual voter participation. But the percentage of people who vote in the United States is low by international standards. Furthermore, voting rates are unevenly distributed across socioeconomic groups, with much lower voting rates among the poor. We find that a cash transfer program that increases household incomes has a positive effect on the voting behaviors of children from the poorest households. This suggests that income augmentation programs that help children may have other indirect (and long-term) benefits to society in the form of increased political participation and civic engagement as adults. There may be more reasons to champion existing programs and policies aimed at reducing child poverty – not only will they reduce current disparities, they may play a role in ensuring the future electorate will be more representative as well.