Do Lower Wages and Higher Unemployment Increase Voter Turnout?

(Digital Vision)

A recent study by Kerwin Charles and Melvin Stephens, Jr. argues that increases in wages and employment reduce voter turnout in gubernatorial elections, though not in presidential contests.

From the abstract:

This paper argues that, since activities that provide political information are complementary with leisure, increased labor market activity should lower turnout, but should do so least in prominent elections where information is ubiquitous.  Using official county-level voting data and a variety of OLS and TSLS models, we find that increases in wages and employment: reduce voter turnout in gubernatorial elections by a significant amount; have no effect on Presidential turnout; and raise the share of persons voting in a Presidential election who do not vote on a House of Representative election on the same ballot.

We argue that this pattern (which contradicts some previous findings in the literature) can be fully accounted for by an information argument, and is either inconsistent with or not fully explicable by arguments based on citizens’ psychological motivations to vote in good or bad times; changes in logistical voting costs; or transitory migration.

The authors find that increases in mean county per capita earnings and mean per capita employment are associated with lower gubernatorial turnout. The results indicate that a 10% increase (roughly a standard deviation) in county labor market activity between elections lowers voter turnout by between 3% to 4%.

This year there are four gubernatorial elections: Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky and West Virginia, which is holding a special election for governor today, Oct. 4. Unemployment has increased in all four states over the last four years. So if the authors’ model is correct, voter turnout will be substantially higher in all four states than in 2007.

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  1. Impossibly Stupid says:

    I’d expect more of a bell curve. When people who are doing well don’t turn out for an election, it’s because the system is already working for them, and so they don’t feel a need to be overly involved. When things are in the middle of the road, they show up because they’re looking to change things for the better. When things have tanked, they just lose all faith in the system and don’t bother thinking their voice will make a difference.

    A quick look online only found data for turnout back to 1960 (someone who spent the $5 will have to say how far back the paper in question goes :-). It would be interesting to go all the way back to the Great Depression and see how well the turnout data matches the politico-economic conditions of the time.

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  2. Jon says:

    It seems simpler than that.

    People generally vote for change. If they don’t need change – if they’re doing well, personally, and if their cohort is – then they’ll assume the status quo will prevail, and will not bother.

    I’d expect an exception where they’re doing well and (there is/they’ve been convinced there is by their information originator of choice) an exceptionally strong challenger from the opposition.

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  3. frankenduf says:

    to the pointy head election administration officials: forget the above nonsense- run the election on a weekend instead of on a #*&%@^!* workday!- and have a mail in ballot!- that’ll fix ur ‘turnout’ woes- o wait i forgot, u guys are corrupt and not really fostering citizen voting access- sigh- ok, back to the theoretical stuff…

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      That we vote on a work day has to be one of the dumbest things about American democracy. Heck voting day should absolutely be the #1 national holiday where no one has to work just to emphasize how important it is.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Which voting day?

        In my area, it’s not at all unusual to have three or four separate elections every year.

        (I heard once that some small European country does elections on Sundays, allegedly instituted many years ago with the hope that people would go to church and pray for divine guidance before voting.)

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  4. Josh says:

    Do I see Katrina in Miss and LA’s numbers?

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