The Volokh Conspiracy

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Increased Voter Turnout Now Benefits Republicans

Survey data shows relatively infrequent voters are significantly more likely to support the Trump-era GOP than those who vote more often. Will this change traditional left and right-wing attitudes towards mandatory voting and other policies intended to increase turnout?



Traditionally, Democrats and progressives have been sympathetic to policies intended to increase voter turnout, while conservative Republicans have been highly skeptical. Advocates of the most extreme such policy—mandatory voting—have also mostly been on the left. Most notably, then-president Barack Obama endorsed the idea back in 2015.

Both sides in this debate cite high-minded, nonpartisan rationales for their positions. For example, supporters of mandatory voting traditionally argue that voting is a civic duty. Opponents contend that it infringes individual liberty. But cynics have long wondered whether the real motive was partisan gain: perhaps liberal Democrats supported efforts to increase turnout because it would help them win, while conservative Republicans opposed them for the very same reason.

There was disagreement among scholars about the extent to which increased turnout really helped Democrats. The effect probably wasn't as great as many partisans imagined. Still, conventional political wisdom held that increased turnout at least benefited the political left at the margin.

Recent polling trends may put both cynical and idealistic explanations for these views to the test. In the Trump era, it is increasingly Republican candidates—especially Trump himself—who stand to benefit from higher turnout.

Dan Hopkins recently summarized some of these trends at the 538 website, in an article entitled "The Less You Vote, the More You Back Trump":

In 2016, former President Donald Trump was a political outsider looking to win the GOP nomination for president. In part, his campaign sought to appeal to voters who were disenchanted with politics.

Despite that, though, Trump wasn't significantly more popular with infrequent voters than with consistent voters….

Between Feb. 20 and March 18, 2024,* Gall Sigler and I oversaw a survey, fielded by NORC, of 2,462 English- and Spanish-speaking adults living in the U.S. According to public records, 63 percent of our respondents who reported being U.S. citizens turned out to vote in 2020…

And when we broke out respondents by their voting history, we found dramatic differences in whom they support for president in 2024. President Joe Biden performed much better among frequent voters, while Trump had a large lead among people who haven't voted recently. Specifically, among respondents who voted in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 general elections, Biden outpaced Trump 50 percent to 39 percent. But among respondents who were old enough to vote but voted in none of those three elections, Trump crushed Biden 44 percent to 26 percent.

Hopkins goes on to note that this pattern helps explain why the Democrats did relatively better in the comparatively lower-turnout off-year elections of 2018 and 2022 than in the presidential election year of 2020.

One obvious explanation for Democrats' newfound advantage among more frequent voters is the rise of the "diploma gap" under which voters—especially whites—with higher levels of education have become more likely to support Democrats, while lesser-educated voters have moved in the opposite direction. Education is highly correlated with voter turnout, with more educated citizens being much more likely to vote.

Perhaps the diploma gap—and resulting partisan turnout differences—will diminish or disappear. But if it persists, it will be interesting to see if intellectuals' and political activists attitudes towards turnout will switch. Will Republicans become advocates of increasing turnout, or even embrace mandatory voting? Will Democrats become more skeptical of such measures? Time will tell.

I myself have long been skeptical of the value of increasing turnout, and am also a longtime opponent of mandatory voting (see, e.g., here, here, and here). I think most people do not have a duty to vote, even in high-stakes elections. And I have argued that relatively ignorant citizens can often do more good by abstaining from voting than by casting poorly informed votes (though I am also skeptical of arguments that government should try to weed out ignorant voters, primarily because I doubt that it can be trusted to do so in an unbiased way). The latter skepticism also makes me wary of "epistocracy."

In addition to libertarian objections to the coercive inherent in mandatory voting, my main reason for these stances is that nonvoters and infrequent voters tend to be even more ignorant about government and public policy than those who vote more often. Thus, major increases in turnout are likely to exacerbate the already severe problem of political ignorance. Mandatory voting would be even worse. I held those views back when increased turnout was generally believed to benefit Democrats, and I continue to hold them today.

It isn't just that a more ignorant electorate is likely to make worse choices among the options before them. It is that those options are likely to be worse to begin with. Parties facing a relatively ignorant election are likely to select lower-quality candidates and policies than those facing a more knowledgeable one. I describe the logic behind this more fully in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance.

This connection between voter knowledge and relatively good policy outcomes is not an iron law. In Chapter 2 of my book, I go over some scenarios where voter ignorance can actually be beneficial. But I also explain why such situations are likely to be unusual.

You might still support increased turnout or mandatory voting if you believe political ignorance doesn't matter much; for example, some scholars argue ignorant voters can use "information shortcuts" to make good decisions, or that "miracles of aggregation" lead the electorate to make good aggregate judgments even if most individual voters know very little.

I am a longtime critic of such voter-knowledge optimism, for reasons discussed in detail in Chapter 4 of Democracy and Political Ignorance. On that score, I notice greater sympathy for my pessimism among left-liberals since the rise of Trump, than before. At the very least, it may be hard for people on the left to praise higher turnout and dismiss concerns about voter knowledge in a world where less-frequent and more ignorant voters tend to back candidates like Trump, whose agenda left-wingers believe (often for good reason!) to be horrendously awful.

By contrast, right-wing intellectuals and activists sympathetic to Trumpism might potentially become advocates of policies that boost turnout, or even mandatory voting. They could also downplay or dismiss concerns about ignorance, perhaps by adopting traditionally left-wing shortcut and miracle of aggregation arguments. The latter might be a natural extension of the MAGA right's embrace of populism. I think we already see some elements of this in the right's tendency to dismiss the dangers of political misinformation.

I am far from sure that the right and left will completely switch sides on issues related to voter turnout. Long-held attitudes may be "sticky." But I would not be surprised to see at least some significant movement in that direction.