The Impact of Voter Turnout on Polarization

Experts debate whether increasing voter turnout will decrease political polarization. Can moderate turnout reduce partisanship?
Image by Trevor Bexon via Shutterstock

Will Increasing Turnout So Everyone Votes Reduce Polarization and Extreme Partisanship?

By Michael Neblo, Jason Brennanand Whitney Quesenbery. If you enjoy this piece, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here.


Engaging Constituents is Essential to Depolarizing Congress

By Michael Neblo – Professor of Political Science and (by courtesy) Philosophy, Communication, and Public Policy at The Ohio State University

Political extremism and polarization are at their highest levels in over a century, while civic participation plus trust and approval of Congress are at near all-time lows. Gridlock, obstruction, and resistance are now normal, at a time when the country faces crucial problems requiring action. People wonder if the country could once again veer into civil war or if we’re already in a cold one.

Direct solutions such as depolarizing the partisan wings are likely impossible in this age of fragmented media, while creating more competitive congressional districts requires those who have been elected on one set of rules to change them. Rather than thinking outside of the box, a more viable solution is making the box bigger, i.e., increasing new voter turnout to shift the political incentives driving polarization.

Countering Constituent Disengagement and Interest Group Politics

To increase voter turnout, we have to get beyond misleading accounts attributing non-participation to apathy or even satisfaction with the status quo. Disengagement comes from constituents’ sense of being disconnected from the work of their representatives and their beliefs that politics is responsive to organized interests, rather than to the concerns of average voters. Traditional constituent engagement opportunities have mostly become venues for interest group politics. While such opportunities have their place, interest group politics tends to drive out all but the most motivated individuals, and to distort representatives’ views of the range of opinion amongst the full breadth of their constituents. This process reinforces the perception that elected officials respond only to organized interests, which leads to further disengagement and low civic participation, thus creating a vicious cycle where members can only engage with and represent “the loudest voices in the room.”

Of course, political candidates sometimes do make efforts to recruit new voters into the system, but motivating those already soured on conventional politics is a heavy lift. For over a decade now, the Connecting to Congress initiative has been bringing together members of Congress with a representative cross-section of their districts in independently moderated online Deliberative Town Halls (DTHs) to test a different mode of constituent engagement. The results were striking:

  • DTHs attracted constituents from every walk of life—in fact, those people most frustrated with politics as usual were the most likely to attend.
  • The design of the events—with participants reviewing non-partisan background materials and engaging in deliberation guided by impartial facilitators—resulted in high-quality, informed conversations, not talking points and simplistic arguments.
  • Participants became 10% more likely to vote after participating in the town hall.

These events involved randomized control trials to make sure that these effects were due to the DTHs and not self-selection.

Changing Congress Through Constituent Engagement

Scaling up the opportunities for regular people to participate in DTHs could encourage enough new voters to have a significant effect. Over time, this could create new incentives in Congress: power that comes from the ability to engage and serve all constituents as opposed to pleasing a small base by slinging mud or pushing extremist policies. And even short of that, deliberative constituent engagement has other benefits. For example, our team convened a series of small group, citizen-to-citizen forums aimed at identifying common ground on the issue of immigration. After these forums, participants reported that they understood the views of others much better, had more respect for other views, and even became more sympathetic to potential actions they initially opposed.

The other great advantage of this kind of constituent engagement is that it can be done now. Deliberative engagement doesn’t rely on elected officials to take the first step. These forums can be organized and promoted by civil society.

Letting the two angriest people in the car take turns yanking the wheel back and forth is a formula for a wreck. If we can get more deliberative participation, we all stand a much better chance of getting someplace we actually want to go—and in one piece.


Polarization is Here to Stay

By Jason Brennan – Flanagan Family Professor of Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy, Georgetown University

Increased political participation would not reduce polarization. On the contrary, increased participation would probably make polarization worse. Increasing participation would not mean the quiet middle would exert a moderating influence on the more active extremes; it would mean the mostly apathetic middle would become mean, intolerant jerks, like most current voters.

In “Hearing the Other Side,” Diana Mutz asks Democrats and Republicans why someone might vote the other way. Most citizens respond, “that’s easy; the other side is stupid and evil.” Citizens who respond like this participate early and often, are members of political clubs, and give money to politics.

However, the citizens who can explain others’ points of view stay home and don’t vote. Citizens who do not care about politics also stay home. In short, politically active citizens are close-minded, faithful partisans. The people who do not participate are either the few that understand different points of view or the many who find politics boring.

Are Moderate Voters Really Moderate?

It is true that non-voters are less partisan. But do not confuse them for genuine moderates committed to middle-ground politics. Instead, political scientists find that most “moderate” voters are simply disinterested in politics. By analogy, I would show up as moderate if polled about current celebrity feuds not because I think the truth is in-between, but because I do not care.

If we induced everyone to vote and participate, more of these seemingly “moderate” voters would flood the polls. This would not itself reduce polarization among voters; it would simply mean that politically apathetic citizens would vote more. 

You might think that this would nevertheless reduce polarization in Congress. Perhaps if the apathetic middle voted, then winning politicians would need to cater to the middle. This conjecture is reasonable but false. One reason for this is that most apathetic moderates, despite calling themselves independent, are “closet partisans.” This means the typical, self-described “independent” voter always votes for the same party every time they vote.

When they vote, they do not much care what the party or candidate they support wants to do. As Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe demonstrate in their book “Neither Liberal nor Conservative,” most voters are ideologically innocent and do not vote for a party because they agree with that party’s politics. Most voters are ignorant and do not know what the party or candidate they support has done, plans to do, or realistically can do. Most voters vote for the same party over and over regardless of what the party proposes to do, whether the party pushes a moderate or extreme agenda, and regardless of how well the party performs.

Thus, inducing so-called moderates to vote will not alter political outcomes because they do not seek out and push for moderate candidates. If we push them to vote, most will just vote a straight party ballot regardless of what the party wants.

Polarized Neighborhoods: Political Self-Segregation

The other reason increased participation will not reduce congressional polarization involves districting. Since the 1960s, Americans have self-segregated into zip codes and districts by party affiliation. Democrats live among Democrats and Republicans among Republicans. Which party wins a district depends entirely on who lives in that district. Thanks to self-segregation, the median citizen is either a strong Democrat or Republican. If everyone voted, the typical electoral district would remain strongly red or blue, and so elected officials would remain polarized.

Indeed, increasing political participation would probably increase polarization. It would be like throwing fire on the flames. Our best evidence in political science and political psychology shows that when people start participating in politics, they tend to become nastier, meaner, less tolerant, more close-minded, and more extreme. Politics make us mean and dumb. Getting apathetic voters to participate more would mean making these apathetic citizens as nasty and mean as current politically active citizens.

Your Vote Does Not Matter

The reasons why are well-understood: Individual votes make no difference. The probability that you will change the outcome of a major election is nearly zero. Voting with, say, the goal of helping Ukraine is about as effective as throwing money into a bottle in Cape Cod, hoping the bottle will wash up on the Ukrainian shores. How you vote has never made a difference and never will. How we vote matters, but how any one of us votes does not. That’s indeed the point of democracy.

Voters know it, too, and this explains their behavior. If voters genuinely believed their individual votes made a difference, we would expect them to be well-informed, pay careful attention to what parties plan to do, be well-versed in the social sciences so that they can assess party platforms, keep track of what their candidates did, and welcome evidence proving they are mistaken. But when political scientists and psychologists investigate voter behavior, they find the opposite. Citizens know next to nothing about politics, and they reason in biased ways that do not track with the truth. Most citizens do not know what their party plans to do. Of those who do, most will parrot whatever platform their party pushes. If the party changes, they also change but are unaware they “changed their minds.” The typical Democrat is not a Democrat because they are pro-gun control; they are pro-gun control because they are a Democrat.

Citizens do not in fact vote to induce the government to change policies. After all, most have little idea what their party has done, will do, or could do. Instead, politics is about signaling to other members of your identity group that you are a faithful member of that group.

The psychology behind voting is the same as the psychology behind sports. I show my fellow Bostonians that I am one of them by wearing Red Sox gear and hating the Yankees. You show fellow farmers you are one of them by voting Republican and hating the Democrats. You show fellow college professors you are one of them by voting Democrat and hating the Republicans. Since individual votes don’t matter, voters use their political identity for social benefits

Reforming Today’s Voting System

To reduce polarization, we should instead change voting systems. The United States uses “first-past-the-post” voting; whoever gets the most votes wins. This system reliably produces two major political parties. Because we only have two major parties, citizens can easily sort themselves into two groups, segregate their jobs and homes by politics, and indulge in being hateful and intolerant of others.

If the US instead had 15 major parties, citizens would be forced to get along. But that means changing to a proportional voting system, that is, a system in which parties win seats based on what percentage of voters support them. While first-past-the-post produces two big parties, proportional voting systems tend to produce many smaller parties.

This reform will never happen because the Democratic and Republican leaders know about Duverger’s Law. They know that first-past-the-post protects their duopoly while other voting methods would destroy it. Thus, they will not support reforms to the current voting system. So, polarization is here to stay. Get used to it.


Making Democracy Robust with 100% Voter Turnout

By Whitney Quesenbery – Co-Founder and Director, Center for Civic Design

For so much of American history, the right to vote has been restricted—limited to landowners, to white people, and to men. Even after the 15th and 19th Amendments gave citizens of all races, colors, and genders the right to vote, politicians passed new laws to roll back access to the polls. Policies using literacy tests, felony disenfranchisement, and racial gerrymandering are shamefully aimed to create unequal access to voting. Even voter registration was introduced in the 1800s based on fears of newer, poorer Americans. Those legacies live on today, meaning we have never heard everyone’s voice in our elections.  

Approaches to Achieving Full Participation

In a new book, E. J. Dionne and Miles Rapoport call the idea of full participation “100% democracy.” It is an aspiration to the ideals of American democracy. Those who argue for Australian-style required voting, or “civic duty voting”, believe it will change the nature of election campaigns by turning out the base to appeal to a wider audience. 

Similarly, arguments for ranked-choice voting claim that it allows voters to make more nuanced decisions about candidates, rather than focusing entirely on who they predict will win in a polarized battle. Advocates for ranked-choice voting believe that it encourages more people to vote and produces greater campaign civility because candidates have to appeal to supporters of their opponents to gain a place in the ranking.

But to reach 100% democracy, we have to do more than remove barriers. We must actively invite everyone to participate by running elections that give everyone equal access. Rather than simply inviting more voters from a single category, we must invite every community. Instead of one group of habitual voters and die-hard partisans at the ends of a political spectrum, we must invite a more comprehensive range of perspectives and opinions.

The Guise of Voter Apathy and Disinterest

Too often, people who don’t vote are called apathetic. But in a recent Texas primary election, nearly 25,000 absentee ballots (approximately 12% of the ballots) were rejected. Here, voters made an effort to request a ballot, mark it, and mail it in. Early reports also suggest that those rejected ballots were disproportionately from communities of color. So much diversity of opinion was lost, preventing advocates and campaigns from considering them. Isn’t that more likely to increase polarization than to reduce it? 

Those voters—and so many others in our civic design research over the years—are likely to be exactly the sort of people who are accused of being apathetic. But we don’t believe that—they may be confused, disheartened, angry at being excluded, or simply discouraged, but they are not apathetic.

Other voters are called uninformed. One high school social studies teacher in California told us about teaching his students to understand what’s on their ballots, but he concluded that he himself never felt that he had enough information to feel confident voting on some of the issues come Election Day. Here is someone who cares about elections, teaches the next generation, and lives in a state that mails a voter guide to every voter. If he feels under-prepared, how many others feel even more so? Feeling unprepared is not the same as being uninterested.

When we read election information, we understand why people feel excluded. Election information uses arcane terminology and legal jargon. Our research on the complexity of signature forms on ballot envelopes shows how easily we could change this if we only had the will (and legislative authority) to write everything in plain language. Maybe if people could understand what they would be voting for, they would be more willing to vote. People who give up because they are stumped by legalese are not apathetic; they are shut out of the process.

Culture and communication also have a role to play. Social media and online news have no boundaries, so news travels widely. Rick Hasen points out that “stuck in the middle of these [partisan] voting wars are the voters themselves, who have become more polarized” as a result. In our interviews with New York City voters in 2020, stories from all the way across the country in Orange County, California about unauthorized ballot drop boxes made them anxious about whether newly introduced drop boxes in their city were safe to use. Those who hear misinformation and resultantly change their voting behaviors are not apathetic. Misinformation makes them distrust the election system and lose confidence that their voices will be heard. 

Transforming Interested Bystanders and Modernizing Voting Practices

Research by Kate Krontiris and colleagues on Understanding America’s “Interested Bystander”: A Complicated Relationship with Civic Duty suggests a different explanation for why many don’t vote. They suggest that almost half of potential voters are interested bystanders “paying attention to issues around them, but not actively voicing their opinions or taking action on those issues.” An interested bystander acts when civic actions are easy and align with one’s self-interest. They may not be focused on politics, but they are engaged in their communities. They volunteer, donate to causes, and report a wide range of neighborhood activities. Other research on civic identity suggests that it must be developed through practice and active social expression at many levels. Voters need to hear the echoes of their own voices in the election results and look for leaders who reflect—and listen to—their communities.

Turning interested bystanders into voters isn’t magic—it’s no surprise that when states make it easy to vote, people show up in greater numbers and from more diverse backgrounds. Minnesota and Colorado, two states with consistently high turnout, have a thoughtful combination of policies and a state-wide culture that supports voters. One of my favorite policies in Minnesota allows a registered voter to vouch for a neighbor for same-day voter registration. Colorado mails ballots to every voter’s mailbox, offers prepaid postage, provides convenient drop-off locations, and makes a point by calling their voting locations Voter Service and Polling Centers. 

Automatic voter registration (AVR) is perhaps the most effective modern practice for encouraging participation, even when the decision is made at the last minute. An analysis of Oregon’s AVR in a report by the Center for American Progress shows that AVR increased both registration and turnout among people who were “unlikely to have done so otherwise”—for instance, younger Hispanic voters and older rural voters. The result is a more representative, politically diverse, and less polarized electorate. 

Policies like these form the groundwork that makes full turnout possible. They enable a better expression of democracy, giving everyone an equal right and ability to vote so that all voices are heard—rather than deciding which voices are worthy of being heard. Higher turnout alone will not reduce polarization, but equal participation just might.

We have a lot of work to do to live up to the ideals of this country and invite everyone to bring their voices to the ballot box. That is reason enough to work toward the goal of 100% democracy.



If you liked this post, you can read more of our Encouraging Bipartisanship series here

Michael Neblo
Professor of Political Science and (by courtesy) Philosophy, Communication, and Public Affairs at The Ohio State University | + posts

Michael Neblo is the College of Arts and Sciences Alumni professor of political science and (by courtesy) philosophy, communication, and public affairs at The Ohio State University, where he directs the Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability (IDEA). Neblo's research focuses on understanding and improving representative democracy. His book, "Politics with the People," develops and tests a new model of politics better connecting citizens and elected officials.

Jason Brennan
Flanagan Family Professor of Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy, Georgetown University | Website | + posts

Jason Brennan, PhD, is the Flanagan Family professor of ethics, economics, and public policy at Georgetown University. He is the author of 16 books, including "Democracy: A Guided Tour" (forthcoming, 2023), "Debating Democracy," "Against Democracy," and "The Ethics of Voting." His books have been translated 27 times into 15 languages. He is the editor of Public Affairs Quarterly and associate editor of Social Philosophy and Policy.

 

Whitney Quesenbery
Co-Founder and Director, Center for Civic Design | Website | + posts

Whitney Quesenbery is the co-founder and director of the Center for Civic Design, which works with elections offices and advocates across the country using design best practices to remove barriers in the voter journey and invite participation in democracy. She combines a fascination with people and an obsession to communicate clearly with her skills in accessibility, plain language, storytelling, and election design. Whitney is the author of three books with practical advice for user experience. Democracy is a design problem!

 

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