Class Bias in the 2014 Midterms

In my recent Explainer, I discussed the implications of the voting gap on policy and elections. Numerous studies show that in states where low-income voters turnout at a higher rate, inequality is lower. That is because in these chambers, policymakers tend to be more liberal and favorable to policies to decrease economic inequality. Low-income turnout has been linked to higher social spending, more generous state health insurance programs for children, higher minimum wages and strong anti-predatory lending policies. In 2008 the gap between high and low income voters was 32.6 percent, and that this gap increased by 2.3 points to 34.6 in the 2010 midterm election.

While the Census data available later will allow for a more thorough analysis, exit polling can give us an idea about turnout bias.

I used the Wall Street Journal exit data to examine the share of voters earning less than $50,000 (36%), between $50,000 and $100,000 (34%) and more than $100,000 (30%). I compared this with 2013 Census data showing the share of households in each of these groups. The data show that those earning less than $50,000 were strongly under-represented, while those earning more than $100,000 were overrepresented. The differences are strong—enough to have shaped many of the elections on Tuesday.

This is important—numerous studies find that the wealthy are far more opposed to redistribution, government spending and higher minimum wages than the rest of the population. The opinions of wealthy Americans finds that wealthy Democrats tend to be more conservative than other Democrats. Increased turnout among low income voters would change the behavior of both political parties.

There was another important voting gap this year—between whites and people of color. Studies find persistent gaps between non-white and white voters, although African Americans have closed that gap in recent elections. In 2014, people of color were far less likely to turnout to the polls than whites. I again used data from the Wall Street Journal and the Census Bureau. The Census Bureau data from 2012 allow us to examine the racial breakdown of the Voting Eligible population (citizens over 18).

The chart below shows that people of color were underrepresented in turnout for midterms. It is likely that their underrepresentation was even wider than the chart shows, since their share of the voting eligible population has increased since 2012.

These gaps can’t only be chocked up to an enthusiasm gap. There were policies in place explicitly aimed at suppressing low-income voters, young voters and voters of color.

Before the race, many states are currently purged their voter rolls; primarily affect people of color and the poor. Since 2006, 34 states have passed some form of voter ID law. Voter ID laws have a disproportionate impact on the young, people of color and low income voters. Further, these laws are explicitly aimed at reducing low-income turnout. One study on the motivations of voter ID laws finds that, “larger increases in class-biased turnout, indicating higher turnout among lower income voters relative to wealthy voters, is significantly associated with a larger volume of proposed legislative changes.”

That is, when low income voters turnout at a higher rate, Republicans are more likely to propose voter ID laws. One study finds that the indirect costs of these laws—transportation, lost work time and the cost of acquiring the relevant documents - are higher than poll taxes were at the times they were instituted.

Additionally, states across the country have reduced early and weekend voting, both of which are necessary for low-wage workers who often cannot get off of work to vote (often due to unpredictable schedules). Further, felony disenfranchisement laws, which have influenced the outcome of both presidential and Senate elections will disenfranchise almost 6 millions voters this year—most of them poor and people of color. If these turnout gaps were eliminated it would significantly change policy. State should encourage voting with Same-Day Registration, not discourage it through voting and registration impediments.