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Mandatory Voting Isn’t a Solution to Polarization

- November 9, 2011

William Galston:

The third argument for mandatory voting goes to the heart of our current ills. Our low turnout rate pushes American politics toward increased polarization. The reason is that hard-core partisans are more likely to dominate lower-turnout elections, while those who are less fervent about specific issues and less attached to political organizations tend not to participate at levels proportional to their share of the electorate…A distinctive feature of our constitutional system — elections that are quadrennial for president but biennial for the House of Representatives — magnifies these effects. It’s bad enough that only three-fifths of the electorate turns out to determine the next president, but much worse that only two-fifths of our citizens vote in House elections two years later…But if you think that today’s intensely polarized politics impedes governance and exacerbates mistrust — and that is what most Americans firmly (and in my view rightly) believe — then you should be willing to consider reforms that would strengthen the forces of conciliation.

Jon Bernstein is dubious.  Andy perhaps less so?  Me: I am definitely dubious.  To be clear, I’d be more than happy to give mandatory voting a whirl, but is it a solution to polarization?  Probably not.

A couple pieces of circumstantial evidence, for starters.  First, the period of the highest voter turnout (of those eligible) — the mid- to late- 1800s — coincided with a lot of party polarization.  And the decline in turnout in the first half of the twentieth century occurred during a decline in polarization.  Compare turnout in presidential elections and polarization.  And the increasing turnout in presidential elections during the past decade has coincided with increasing polarization.

Second, although states vary in whether they allow independents to vote in party primaries, more “open” primaries do not tend to produce more moderate members of Congress or less polarized state legislatures.  See this old post.

Okay, but this is just comparing levels of turnout within the limited bounds.  What if we turned turnout up to 11, as it were, by making it mandatory?  Here, studies of the opinions of voters and nonvoters are important.  After all, if requiring habitual nonvoters to vote is to mitigate polarization, nonvoters better have political attitudes that are (1) different than voters and especially (2) more moderate than nonvoters.  Unfortunately, neither is consistently true.

Take the research (pdf) of Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler that Andy cites in his post.  Scroll through that pdf file to Table 2 and look at the differences between reported voters and nonvoters in the 2004 American National Election Study.  Consider these survey items and the attendant differences:

  • Ideological self-identification: 42% of nonvoters consider themselves “moderate,” vs. 30% of voters.  Now, a 12-point difference hardly seems to presage the end of polarization, but this is at least supportive of Galston’s conjecture.
  • Should government guarantee jobs: Nonvoters are 12 points more likely than voters to say that the government should do this.  They are more liberal, not more moderate.
  • Should government provide health care: Ditto.  Nonvoters 7 points more likely than voters to give the liberal answer.
  • When should abortion be legal: Nonvoters more likely to say “never”!  They are not consistently more or less likely to give “moderate” opinions.

A parallel data analysis in a different 2004 survey turns up even more modest difference on most items.  And again, non-voters are not consistently more moderate.  In fact, the central finding, according to Leighley and Nagler, is this: “…voters are substantially more conservative than non-voters on class-based issues.”

Part of the problem is that, although Galston is correct that non-voters are not as strongly partisan as voters, they are also less well-educated, less wealthy, and more likely to be an ethnic minority.  Which is to say, they are more likely to want the government to do stuff.  And given that the parties are increasingly polarized on precisely this question — what should the government do? — bringing non-voters to the polls is not an obvious recipe for less polarization.

One final thing: the central effect of political campaigns — one identified in over 60 years of research — is to solidify and reinforce the existing social identities as well as partisan, ideological, or policy views of voters.  That is, campaigns tend to bring potentially wayward voters back “in the fold.”  This only tends to polarize voters.  Indeed, it can happen even in the space of a single 30-second ad.  If, under a mandatory voting system, candidates no longer have to worry about mobilizing voters to turn out and can concentrate on persuading voters to support them, I suspect that we would see this same effect, but magnified over the entire electorate.  So it’s entirely possible that mandatory voting may even increase polarization.