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For the Effects of Voting, Look to Policy, Not Elections

04/28/2015 02:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015

President Obama's recent comments on universal voting have spurred a debate about how such a policy would influence elections. On the Monkey Cage blog, John Sides examines the partisan consequences and argues that turnout would generally benefit Democrats, but that the effect would be modest. His own research, with Jack Citrin and Eric Schickler concludes, "Although Democrats fare better in each scenario, few outcomes would have changed." He does note that both the 2000 and 2004 elections would have been different with universal turnout.

While these questions are indeed interesting, I'm more interested in the policy consequences of universal turnout. After all, the most important political change in the last three decades hasn't occurred between parties, but rather within parties: the Tea Party pulling the Republicans right and a more wealthy and elite Democratic party abandoning union-type policies.

So what do we know about the policy consequences?

· William Franko, Nathan Kelly and Christopher Witko find that states with higher turnout inequality (more rich people voting than poor people) have higher income inequality. They find that the class bias in turnout affects the economic liberalism of the state legislature. Specifically, when class bias is low, the liberal opinions of the public translate into liberal policy. But when class bias is high, liberal public opinion has no effect on policy.

· A similar study was recently performed by James Avery, who also finds, "states with greater income bias in turnout have higher levels of income inequality." He reports that even after controlling for various factors (Gross State Product, the strength of labor, government ideology) his findings are "unambiguous."

· William Franko finds that states with lower turnout inequality have higher minimum wages, more generous State Child Health Insurance Program Benefits and more restrictive anti-predatory lending laws.1

· Kim Hill and Jan Leighley find in two studies that states with a more pronounced turnout bias, social welfare spending is lower.

· Timothy Besley and Anne Case find that, "Less costly voter registration-- through motor-voter rules, or through day-of-polling registration--is generally associated with higher taxes, higher spending, and larger family assistance and workers' compensation payments."

In a previous Demos blog post, I briefly explored some international evidence supporting this argument. Here, I'd like to briefly explore some historical precedents.

· John Lott and Lawrence Kenny find that extending the franchise to women increased the state government expenditures.

· Kenny Whitby and Franklin Gilliam Jr. find that Southern Democrats shifted their voting patterns on civil rights because of the mobilization of the southern black electorate.

· Thomas Husted and Lawrence Kenny find that the elimination of poll taxes and literacy requirements lead to a "sharp" rise in welfare spending.

In none of these cases did one party permanently declare victory. Rather, the electoral calculus of one or both parties shifted. The reason we should have universal turnout is not to give one party permanent hegemony. In fact, Timothy Besley, Torsten Persson and Daniel Sturm find that party competition boosts growth, "political competition has quantitatively important effects on state income growth, state policies and quality of governors." They estimate that the Voting Rights Act boosted long-term per capita income by 20 percent in states that were affected.

Universal voting would make democracy better by increasing the representativeness of politicians to the needs of those who currently don't vote.

Note: Franko also replicated his study using validated data in the wake of Ansolabehere and Hersh.

This article originally appeared on Policyshop.