A key Senate committee recently deadlocked over one of the most important bills related to our democracy in decades: the For the People Act of 2021. As Congress and the media debate whether this highly consequential legislation can succeed in Washington’s hyper-partisan morass, members of the Senate and the House—and the American people—should better understand how this weighty measure would correct one of our democracy’s great failings: the historical and yawning gap in voter turnout between the poor and non-poor.
As their first bill after taking over the House of Representatives in 2018, Democrats introduced the For the People Act as H.R. 1, representing the most comprehensive package of federal electoral reform measures since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The proposed legislation would modernize voter registration, restore voting rights for individuals with prior convictions, bolster mail voting systems, mandate early voting nationwide, require the equitable distribution of election resources to reduce wait times at the polls, protect against voter deception and intimidation, establish a campaign finance matching system for small donors, strengthen campaign finance transparency and disclosure rules, reorganize the Federal Election Commission, create independent redistricting commissions, reinforce election security, and impose stronger ethics requirements for all three branches of government. The bill passed the House in the 116th Congress, but didn’t advance in the Senate.
The For the People Act was reintroduced in the House as H.R. 1 in January 2021, approved in March, and sent again to the Senate, where it is referred to as S. 1. Whether the Senate will approve passage of this sweeping measure is a matter for congressional leaders and the president to negotiate. But one of the issues that this important legislation would address merits closer analysis: participatory inequality among the voting public.
The Problem of Participatory Inequality
The first goal for a democracy should be broad and inclusive participation from the people in their selection of elected representatives. Such broad and inclusive participation has proven to be a necessary prerequisite to democratic representativeness and accountability. Despite the repeated claims to democratic exceptionalism, the United States has consistently failed to meet the goal of a broad and inclusive democracy. At the founding, the Framers constructed a democracy for propertied white men, and even as tangible barriers to participation have been removed over the course of American history, an economic class participatory gap persists. Since the United States Census Bureau began recording voter turnout by economic class in the 1960s, there has been a turnout gap between Americans in the highest and lowest income quintiles that has ranged from 27 percent to 39 percent.
The income class gap in voter participation has been associated with biases in representatives’ responsiveness and accountability to America’s different economic classes. A consistent finding in social science studies is that elected representatives are very responsive to the interests and preferences of the wealthy and not at all responsive to those of the poor. The participation and representation gap between the rich and the poor is not simply a short-term democratic deficit, but rather a long-term threat to the stability and sustainability of the American republican form of government. A people too long neglected and marginalized in a political process will eventually seek alternative means to satisfy their needs. Such alternative means could lead to the breakdown of republican government through either domestic civil strife or government repression.
In this pandemic moment, Americans can clearly see the effects of public policy in the production and exacerbation of economic inequality. Pro-democracy advocates behind the For the People Act should take advantage of this moment and highlight the fact that participatory inequality between the rich and the poor functions as an important source of public policy that favors the wealthy and harms the poor.
How the For the People Act Can Reduce the Participation Gap
From a conventional perspective, the For the People Act contains the necessary ingredients to address the problem of participatory inequality. The bill would reduce tangible barriers to voting in federal elections through its prohibition on the disfranchisement of persons with convictions. That population of individuals is overwhelmingly in the lowest income quintile of Americans and their enfranchisement could make an important difference in lessening the participatory gap. The bill would also provide for the easing of voter registration and the extension of convenient voting measures nationwide. Finally, the bill would require a more equitable distribution of election resources to address the long lines at the polls that tend to be concentrated in urban centers that presumably have greater concentrations of poor Americans.
While critics of the For the People Act may claim that election reform such as this is the domain of the states, Article I, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution—also known as the Elections Clause—grants to Congress the authority to “make or alter” regulations establishing “the Times, Places, and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives.” Congress has, for example, through the National Voter Registration Act, already used its power under the Elections Clause to reform manners of registration, and it can do so again through the adoption of the automatic and same-day registration provisions in the For the People Act.
To boost voter participation, among other provisions, the For the People Act would improve voter registration and voting convenience. While these measures are important, proponents of the For the People Act would be remiss in thinking that they alone would significantly impact the turnout gap between the rich and the poor. History suggests and empirical studies show that reducing barriers to registration and convenience of voting have had only a marginal effect on turnout generally, and no statistically significant effect on turnout by the poor.
The focus of the For the People Act on those tangible barriers to voting will therefore not achieve their goal unless accompanied by other measures also included in the For the People Act that can increase the tangible benefits from voting. Political scientists have found that an important factor leading to low turnout is the perception among marginalized segments of the population that they have no stake in the election. Those individuals perceive that their votes do not matter because politicians have not demonstrated to them any concern about their wants, needs, and interests in the policies that they enact or through their behavior when campaigning for office. An important means by which politicians show that citizens and a citizen’s votes matter is through their efforts to contact them prior to elections to encourage them to vote. Experimental studies have found that campaigns’ contact of individuals function as a critical mechanism for inducing turnout. The leading study found that face-to-face campaign contact increased the likelihood of turnout by almost 10 percent, far exceeding the positive effect on turnout from reducing the tangible barriers to voting. The problem, however, is that parties and activists do not contact everyone. In fact, they consistently bias their mobilization activity toward the wealthy and middle class and away from the poor. Over the forty years in which data is available on contact rates, low-income individuals have been substantially less likely to be contacted by campaigns than high income individuals.
One source of the contact gap between the rich and the poor is the disparity in registration rates between the two classes. Campaigns rely on state-maintained lists of registered voters in their canvassing efforts, meaning that those who are excluded from registration lists are highly unlikely to be contacted. The For the People Act’s provision for automatic and same-day registration can increase the likelihood that campaigns will contact poor Americans, because more of the members of this group will be registered. But simply increasing the registration of the poor will not reduce the contact gap by itself. Campaigns will also need the resources and incentives to extend their campaign engagement to low-income populations that have voted infrequently or not at all in past elections. Campaigns tend to consider this group of potential voters to be more costly and risky to mobilize. They are more costly for campaigns to mobilize because they typically require a more intensive form of engagement to be persuaded about the benefits from voting. There also might be higher risks associated with campaigns mobilizing classes of infrequent voters because of their uncertain political orientations: campaign efforts to mobilize those who have a latent political orientation favoring their opponent could be electorally counterproductive.
The For the People Act includes measures that could address the resource problems and incentive challenges that contribute to the contact gap between the non-poor and the poor. The provision in the For the People Act providing for small donor matching and vouchers would increase the flow of money to campaigns that could be used to contact a broader segment of potential voters than they currently do. Courts have found small donor matching and vouchers to be constitutional at the state level and Congress has the authority to adopt such provisions at the national level through the Elections Clause.
The For the People Act provision for an independent redistricting commission could provide the necessary incentives for campaigns to contact a broader segment of potential voters than they currently do, if the commission prioritizes competitiveness as a districting principle. The U.S. Supreme Court has recently upheld the constitutionality of independent redistricting commissions adopted at the state level under the Elections Clause. Moreover, Congress has already exercised the power to regulate redistricting in the past through legislation requiring compact and equally populated congressional districts pursuant to the Elections Clause. The Court should therefore find that Congress has the authority to establish independent redistricting commissions to draw federal districts that accord with the districting principles established in federal law.
Eliminating the voter participation gap between the rich and the poor would strengthen America’s democracy and reduce inequality. The For the People Act contains provisions to achieve these goals that merit public and congressional support.