Registration, Turnout, and State Party Systems

By Brown, Robert D.; Jackson, Robert A. et al. | Political Research Quarterly, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Registration, Turnout, and State Party Systems


Brown, Robert D., Jackson, Robert A., Wright, Gerald C., Political Research Quarterly


This study reexamines the influence of party elite liberalism on voter participation across the American states. Incorporating Hill and Leighley's measure of liberal party control, we offer a framework that places party elites as an important component in the state electoral setting. However, this effort departs from previous work by suggesting that studies of voter mobilization should pay greater attention to participation as a multi-stage process, where citizens must first register. Our results conform to expectations driven by this conceptualization. States with more liberal Democratic elites and more Democratic legislatures witness higher levels of registration, controlling for other factors. We find that the influence of liberal party control on state turnout is indirect, operating through registration. Our results are consistent with a view of party elite ideology as a long-term, rather than campaign-specific, component of state electoral politics. More generally, the analyses provide new insight into influences on aggregate registration and turnout and into the electoral participation across the United States of different income classes.

It is by now an unfortunate truism that, relative to other Western democracies, low levels of voter turnout plague the United States (Jackman 1987; Lijphart 1997; Powell 1986; Verba, Nie, and Kim 1978). Studies seeking to understand this phenomenon suggest several possible explanations, with most tending to revolve around the relative costs and benefits of participation. For example, numerous efforts suggest that restrictive registration requirements add additional cost to the voting act in the United States (e.g., Erikson 1981; Knack 1995; Powell 1986; Squire, Wolfinger, and Glass 1987; Teixeira 1992; Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980). Benefits, on the other hand, are usually examined in terms of issue proximity or the sense that one party/candidate is better able Or more likely to serve potential voters' interests. Where costs are great and benefits not readily apparent, individuals are less likely to vote. Note, however, the primacy of the need to cast a meaningful vote-for even if voting is costless, citizens who are indifferent or who perceive no policy-relevant reason to cast a vote (no benefit) may be considered "rational" if they abstain (Downs 1957: 260).

It is in this vein that investigations have come to blame weaknesses in the mobilizing effectiveness of American political parties for contributing to low voter turnout (e.g., Burnham 1982; Powell 1986; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993). These studies leave the general impression that in the United States, political parties associated with moderate ideological stances and weak linkages to social groups have become relatively ineffective at helping citizens overcome the costs of voting. Although the campaign efforts of individual candidates may demonstrate important influences on participation, with close and more visible contests increasing turnout (see Cox and Munger 1989; Gilliam 1985; Patterson and Caldeira 1983), the activating potential of political parties across the United States is.subject to skepticism. Do American parties, in their contemporary role and function, retain the capacity to "get out the vote?"

Recent efforts to answer this question have focused on variation in the ideological setting of the state party system as a particularly important, yet oftneglected factor in citizen mobilization (e.g., Hill and Leighley 1993, 1996). The ideological leanings of state party elites, and Democratic elites in particular, are seen as fundamental to the participation of voters. Consideration of the impact of elite ideology on citizen participation rests on the expectation that party activity, as it is undertaken by elites and witnessed by potential voters, may influence the perceived benefits and costs of participation. In short, the values and efforts of elites give shape and definition to state parties and politics. …

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