Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

The Value of the Vote: A Model and Test of the Effects of Turnout on Distributive Policy

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

The Value of the Vote: A Model and Test of the Effects of Turnout on Distributive Policy

Article excerpt

The most plausible assumption is that if certain groups or classes of citizens habitually do not vote their interest will be neglected in the actions and policies of governments (Key [1950, 506]).


This article investigates the effects of voter participation on the distribution of government funds. A simple model shows why, for some types of distributive policy, incumbents will have a greater probability of reelection if high-turnout regions receive more funds than do low-turnout regions. The model predicts, therefore, that politicians who seek reelection, and similarly politicians (including the ideologically driven) selected into office because they set popular policy, will tend to allocate more funds to regions with higher turnout. I test the model's predicted relationship between turnout and spending for the South in the 1930s. Spending data are county-level allocations by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), which was the early New Deal's main program to provide relief to the unemployed. The evidence suggests that turnout had a substantial effect on FERA spending. If an individual was a voter rather than a nonvoter, it typically led to an increase on the order of $30 in the expected FERA allocation for the individual's county. The findings shed light both on the role of voting in representative democracies and on the historical role of voting rights in the Southern political system.

Elections, Voter Participation, and Policy

Representative democracy creates a tendency for government to set policy that improves politicians' prospects for reelection. This may occur because politicians design policy for the purpose of winning reelection, or it may occur because elections sort into office those politicians who, for ideological or other reasons, tend to set policy that wins votes.(1)

The type of policy that improves the prospects for reelection depends upon how voters respond to policy. To illustrate this point, consider the distribution of a fixed sum between different regions (e.g., counties). One key consideration is the extent to which voting behavior responds to distributive policy. Allocating funds to groups that do not respond will be less likely to lead to reelection. Groups that do not respond include those who will always vote in support of the incumbent, those who will always vote in opposition to the incumbent, and those who do not vote.

Previous work on distributive politics has examined how distribution is influenced by constituents' voting behavior with respect to whom they support when they do vote. For example, Wright [1974], Wallis [1984; 1987; 1991], Kiewiet and McCubbins [1985], Cox and McCubbins [1986], and Fleck [1999] examine favoritism of swing and loyal voters.(2)

This article takes a different but complementary approach by focusing on the distributive effects of whether people vote. Quite simply, winning the approval of a group of citizens has a larger effect on reelection if those citizens vote in large numbers than if they do not. This provides a reason to expect that politicians will tend to allocate relatively little to those who do not vote. This is consistent with the long-recognized point that nonvoters have little influence on policy, a point that Key [1950] made clear and that follows naturally from economic models of voting, such as that of Downs [1957]. Bennett and Mayberry [1979] show a similar effect of legislative representation on interstate redistribution: states with more representatives per capita in Congress tend to have lower ratios of taxes paid into the federal treasury relative to federal grants-in-aid received.

By modeling and estimating the effects of voter participation, this article contributes to the general understanding of how voting influences the allocation of resources. Furthermore, the substantial size of the estimated effects underscores the critical role that voting rights played in the Southern political system. …

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