Elections POLS 1101
The Logic of Elections
• American democracy is representative democracy
• Madison emphasized the main differences between a democracy and a republic
o A larger group of people decide how they government functions in a democracy
• Delegation of authority raises the possibility of agency loss
o One solution is to hold regular, free, competitive elections
• Elections work to ameliorate this problem:
o They give ordinary citizens a say in who represents them
o The prospect of future elections gives officeholders who want to keep or improve their
jobs a motive to be responsive agents
o Elections provide powerful incentives for the small set of citizens who want to replace
the current officeholders to keep a close eye on representatives and to provide crtical
evaluations of them to the public at large
5 Stages of Extending Suffrage and Consequences
• First stage: Early 1800’s religious, property and tax qualifications begin to disappear in every
State (universal white male suffrage by 1840s)
o Only about half of the free adult male population was eligible to vote at the time the
Constitution was adopted
o Those in an advantaged position were not inclined to risk the social order, which helped
them maintain their position
o BUT: property requirements were not enforced strictly the Revolutionary War itself
exerted a powerful influence on the demands to enlarge the franchise
o The vote was not extended simultaneously (as it was left to individual states to decide
who could vote), but as it was extended, opposition to extending it became a political
liability: as the electorate expanded, it became political suicide to oppose more
o The property-less did not despoil the properties
o The conformity cost most dreaded did not emerge
• Second stage: 1870- 15th amendment prohibits voting restrictions based on race or color
o Civil war amendments: Thirteenth (formal emancipation), Fourteenth (grated
citizenship), Fifteenth (guaranteed the right to vote)
o The fourteenth and fifteenth amendments did not prevent a century of racial
discrimination at the polls.
o Only the Voting Rights Act quickly and effectively achieved its goals
• Third Stage: 1920-19th Amendment removes voting restrictions based on sex
o The women’s suffrage movement grew directly out of the antislavery movement (and
o The resistance to women’s suffrage was gradually overcome by a combination of social
changes (increased education, more women in the workforce, political need)
o Only southern Democrats held out to the end, fearing that inroads for women would
reinforce federal support of suffrage for blacks Elections POLS 1101
o Women did not alter the nature of politics. Indeed, no distinctive pattern of women’s
voting was evident until the 1980’s.
• Fourth Stage: 1965- Voting Rights Act enforces racial equity at polling places
o Jim Crow Laws in place in the South (white primary, poll tax, literacy tests, grandfather
clauses to protect the poor and illiterate whites)
o Anti-lynching laws stymied in Congress
o Plessy v. Ferguson upholds “separate but equal doctrine” in 1896
o Civil Rights movement shifts from litigation (1940’s and 50’s) to mass protests (1960’s)
• Fifth Stage: 1971-26th amendment sets the minimum voting age at 18
o Also politically motivated: Eighteen-year olds old enough to fight, therefore old enough
o The only discernible consequence was the decline in voting that occurred when the right
was extended to eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-olds.
Who Uses the Right to Vote?
• Most of us agree that the right to vote is the very essence of democracy
• Yet millions of Americans do not vote. Is this irrational? Paradoxical?
o Not when you consider that the benefits of elections are collective benefits
o People enjoy the payoffs even if they have not helped to produce them by voting
o A single vote is not likely to make much of a difference. And voting is costly!
o Makes sense to demand the right to vote. But rational not to use it.
• Amazing outcome is that so many people actually do turn out to vote!
o Freerider problems are overcome
• Same logic applies to gathering information about the competing candidates and parties if a
person chooses to vote.
• They share of eligible voters who go to polls has varies widely over American history
• The most important contemporary change was the sharp decline in voter turnout between 1960
o Since then, an average of only about 58 percent of the eligible electorate has bothered
to register and vote in presidential elections
o Even the hotly contested 2008 race inspired a turnout of only about 61 percent
• Age and education have the strongest influence on voting
o African Americans and Hispanics are less likely to vote as are people who live in
southern states or those that border southern states.
o People with deeper roots in their community vote more often as do those with internal
and external efficacy
o Turnout is higher in areas where there are fewer barriers to registration
• Turnout is higher among people with stronger partisan views and electoral preferences
• If one lives in an area with more active parties and more competitive elections, there is also an
increased probability of voting
• In terms of gender, men and women are equally likely to turn out and vote.
• The cynical and distrusting are as likely to vote as anyone else
o Contradicts a popular explanation for the decline in participation- that it resulted from
an increase in public cynicism and mistrust since 1960 Elections POLS 1101
• Voting and other forms of political participation incur costs but produce benefits
• People participate when they can meet the costs and appreciate the benefits
• Those with money, education, experience, free time, and self-confidence find it easier to meet
the costs, while those with a greater psychological stake receive greater benefits
• Voting therefore rational for those who derive personal satisfaction from going to the polls.
Expressing themselves through voting typically outweighs the modest costs of casting a ballot
• Differences in participation cannot be explained completely by individual differences in
resources and psychological involvement, however.
• Institutional contexts (variation in registration laws, for example) affect turnout as well.
• Social circumstances also play a crucial part in stimulating turnout:
o Social connections help with efficacy levels, information, and contact with activists.
o Often people participate because they have been asked to do so.
The Non-Representative Electorate
• The assorted demographic and institutional influences on voting produce an electorate (the
voting public) in which:
o Wealthy, well-educated, older white people are overrepresented.
o Poor, uneducated, young, and nonwhite people are underrepresented.
• People like this are more likely to be mobilized by parties, interest groups, and campaigns:
o They are targeted as the cheapest to reach and easiest to mobilize
Variation in Turnout over Time
• Earlier discussion focused on the factors that explain variations in participation among
individuals, but what accounts for variations in turnout over time?
• Puzzling: While voter registration laws have eased and education attainment has increased, why
had voter turnout declined