Representation: Elections and Beyond

By Jack H. Nagel; Rogers M. Smith | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Uneven Democracy: Turnout, Minority
Interests, and Local Government Spending

Zoltan Hajnal and Jessica Trounstine

We know that the majority of Americans usually do not vote. At best roughly half of adults vote in national contests. At worst, fewer than 10 percent of adults vote in local elections (Bridges 1997; Hajnal and Lewis 2003). We also know that those who do turn out to vote look very different from those who do not. Study after study of American elections has found that individuals with limited resources— the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, the less educated— vote much less consistently than those with ample resources (Verba et al. 1995, Rosenstone and Hansen 1993).

The skewed nature of the vote raises real concerns about how well the interests of different groups are served in democracy. As V. O. Key noted decades ago, “The blunt truth is that politicians and officials are under no compulsion to pay much heed to classes and groups of citizens that do not vote” (1984: 99). The fear is that individuals and groups who do not participate in the voting pro cess will be overlooked and their concerns ignored (Piven and Cloward 1988). Policies will be biased, outcomes unfair, and in the end American democracy will represent the interests of the privileged few over the broader concerns of the masses (Schattschneider 1970).

But are these fears founded? Conventional wisdom suggests that they are. In almost any political campaign actors on all sides repeatedly cite turnout as one of the most critical factors in determining the outcome of the election. After any close contest, candidates and commentators are likely to agree that “turnout emerged as a decisive factor in [the] elections” (Bumiller

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