Does Electoral Reform Increase (or Decrease) Political Equality?

Article excerpt

Abstract

Over recent decades, the American states have implemented electoral reforms that make it easier for citizens to register and vote. This article examines the "equality effects" of these reforms: the degree to which reform serves to equalize or further skew participation rates between the rich and poor. Using the Voter Supplement to the Current Population Survey, the authors generate state-level estimates of income bias in registration and voting for elections from 1978 to 2008. Findings support their theory that some electoral reforms promote equality, while others further stratify the electorate-particularly when state registration rolls are already unrepresentative in terms of income groups.

Keywords

political participation, class bias, political inequality, state electoral reform, electoral institutions, registration laws, voting

As levels of income inequality continue to climb in the United States, many question the ability of the political system to uphold its normative commitment to political equality among citizens with vastly different resources (Bartels 2008; Jacobs and Skocpol 2005). Although concerns about income-based political inequality are longstanding (e.g., Schattschneider 1960), concerns have been reinvigorated by recent work identifying public officials' greater responsiveness to wealthier constituents (Bartels 2008; Gilens 2005; Rigby and Wright 2011), the growing role of money in the electoral process (Ansolabehere, de Figueiredo, and Snyder 2003), and political parties' tendency to engage in targeted mobilization strategies by disproportionately focusing their efforts on the most advantaged and engaged members of the electorate (Rosenstone and Hansen 2003).

In response, many reformers have directed their efforts toward equalizing the political playing field. One primary target for reform has been state electoral institutions, which determine the participatory "rules of the game" governing registration and voting in the American states (Cain, Donovan, and Tolbert 2008; Lijphart 1997; Piven and Cloward 1988, 2000). Motivated by the clear differences in participation rates among advantaged and disadvantaged citizens (Leighley and Nagler 1992; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993/2003; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995), electoral reforms aim not only to increase overall voter turnout rates but also-and perhaps more importantly-to equalize political participation across different sociodemographic groups (Lijphart 1997; Mitchell and Wlezien 1995; Piven and Cloward 1988, 2000; Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980). Despite the normative importance of this goal, most evaluations of electoral reforms tend to draw conclusions about their effects on the representativeness of the electorate indirectly, from studies primarily designed to evaluate the effect of reform on overall turnout rates. Instead, in this article, we focus more directly on the equality consequences of several popular electoral reforms. The theory we develop and test is unique in that it specifies not only the types of electoral reform but also the characteristics of state electorates in which reforms are enacted. These distinctions allow us to identify the reforms most likely to enhance equality, as well as those that may serve to further skew the representativeness of the electorate.

This theory differentiates among three common but distinct approaches to electoral reform, each expected to affect the balance of participation across income groups in different ways: reforms such as mail-in registration that make voter registration easier, reforms like election day registration (EDR) that reduce the barrier registration poses to voting, and reforms such as early voting that make voting more convenient. Of course, this approach is not new; scholars commonly differentiate among different reforms (i.e., motor voter or mail-in registration). Yet they rarely theorize different effects for distinct approaches to electoral reform as we do here. …