Reuters

The disadvantaged are the least likely to vote. What does that mean for their interests?

The U.S. electorate isn't entirely represented by the people in the U.S. who vote. Women are more likely to vote than men. Until the 2012 presidential election, whites were significantly more likely to vote than all minority groups. On the whole, Americans are more likely to vote the more education they have, the more money they earn, and the older they are.

This means that the people who participate in U.S. elections don't necessarily mirror the interests of all Americans who ought to be eligible to vote. And one segment of the population stands out as disproportionately unrepresented: the disadvantaged.

It's impossible to say if we'd elect different politicians, who'd try different policies, if more low-income parents and GED holders and minimum-wage workers voted. But there's an interesting theory about this contained in a new book from political scientists Jan E. Leighley and Jonathan Nagler. They looked at voter turnout going back to 1972 in the book, Who Votes Now? Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States. Dan Balz has a good review of it here.

If inequality has grown worse over the last four decades, they ask, why hasn't political momentum to do something about it kept pace with the scale of the problem? One potential piece of the answer is that the people most impacted by inequality are among the least likely to vote.

Leighley and Nagler also note that low-income and less-educated Americans are less likely to perceive differences between two candidates, suggesting that they're not following campaigns in the same way as other would-be voters.

But why would this be? And can we do anything to boost voting among this group? (This second question goes beyond eradicating voter suppression tactics.) Two sets of research come to mind. One study concluded that grueling commutes seemed to sap people of the will to care about politics, with the perverse consequence that low-income people who often have the worst commutes are further distanced from the civic arena where they might complain about it.

The other research, from outside the political science field, revealed how the everyday challenges of poverty tax the brain so much that poor people are left with less mental capacity to worry about things the rest of us think about with ease. So a stressed single mother forgets to pay a bill on time. A low-wage worker preoccupied by making his rent can devote little energy to succeeding at night school.

Researchers Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir never get into the implications of this for politics or democracy in their book about this work, Scarcity. But it seems entirely plausible that a poor parent who has to figure out how to produce dinner on $3 a day doesn't have the bandwidth leftover to weigh the pros and cons of Chris Christie.

This doesn't mean that low-income people as a group are uninterested in politics. Maybe the obstacle is not primarily about "interest," or even time, or access to a ride to the polling place. If we want to think about increasing turnout among voters whose voices typically go unheard, maybe we ought to think about what else is consuming their attention instead.

Top image of a voter in Colorado last November: Mark Leffingwell/Reuters

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Life

    At Atlanta’s Rail Stations, a Transit-Oriented Soccer League Takes Shape

    Swaths of empty space at train stations are being turned into athletic fields for kids and adults.

  2. Design

    Lisbon’s Beautiful, Dangerous Sidewalks

    The artistic and slippery “Portuguese pavement” has become Lisbon’s calling card. City Hall wants to replace a few stretches of them with concrete—a seemingly sensible decision that has sparked outrage.

  3. Life

    Uber, but for Driving Your Kids Around

    A slew of small companies have launched in recent years, offering parents a way to outsource their daily driving.

  4. Transportation

    Beverly Hills Has Financed Its Metro Fight With $13 Million In Local Taxes

    Instead of reconstructing aging school facilities, the district is using a voter-backed ballot measure to pay for a legal campaign against a subway extension.

  5. A vacant home on Milwaukee's north side.
    Equity

    Can Milwaukee Really Create 10,000 Affordable Homes?

    The city has an ambitious plan to fix its housing woes. But so far, most of development has been focused on the city’s downtown area.