As the director of GOV360, I am always thrilled to find newly published research by scholars in my field. Dan Balz’ Washington Post column, Monday, January 4th, identified a new book about the impact of low voter turnout on American elections. “Who Votes Now” (2014), by Jan E. Leighley and Jonathan Nagler is perhaps the most comprehensive work on the subject in 25 years. The broad premise of the book is that not voting in presidential elections does have consequences on our political system, and that the silence of non-voters can have an adverse impact on policy decisions affecting the direction of our country. The book defines gaps between voters and non-voters. However, what is missing is any mention of the fact that these demographic gaps become much more significant in non-presidential elections. For example, wealthier people may be somewhat more likely to vote in presidential elections than people with lower incomes, but the wealthy are far more likely to vote in congressional primaries, mid-terms and off-year or special elections.
When I started, GOV360 in 2010, the goal was to point out that the United States was designed to be a representative republic. According to the constitution, it would seem that founders intended for the make-up of the United States House of Representatives to be more significant to public policy than the person occupying the White House. In “Who Votes Now”, the authors attempt to show how income gaps and demographic disparity can adversely affect the outcome of presidential elections. But they omit the fact that other elections, where these gaps are much greater, could be much more important to the grand scheme of things in our democratic system. This issue is not directly addressed at all in the book. Yet, if non-voters have an impact on presidential elections, they certainly have an even greater impact on the outcome of congressional elections.
Leighley and Nagler do a great service in addressing the influence of presidential politics on voter turnout, and vice versa. They both seem to understand the importance of examining the motivations of non-voters. But, they fail to address the need for sustainable solutions to low turnout in elections that matter to our cities, states, and districts. GOV360 is fighting an uphill battle as long as scholars, experts, and people in the mainstream media continue to downplay important representative elections. Like any problem, if we are to ever find solutions to the voter turnout crisis, we must be bold in pointing out where and how the crisis really exists.