Research desk responds: How does unemployment affect voter turnout?
By Dylan Matthews
Is there a correlation between unemployment rate and turnout? As we know, for some dumb reason election day is still a weekday that most people have to work which reduces turnout, so if there are a lot of people without jobs, can we expect them to vote in greater numbers (leaving aside how much they'd favor one party or the other.)
_SP_'s hypothesis is interesting, but isn't held up by the data. The Census recently issued a detailed
report (PDF) breaking down voting and registration in the 2008 election by race, income, employment status and so forth, and found that employed people turned out more frequently (65.9 percent to 54.7 percent) than unemployed people:
The registration data also defies _SP_'s theory. The gap between employed and unemployed registration rates -- 72.8 percent to 64.1 percent -- is smaller than the gap between actual voting rates; 90.5 percent of employed people who had registered voted, while only 85.3 percent of unemployed who registered did. If _SP_ were correct, then unemployment should cause registered voters to turn out more often, since they have more time, whereas the data suggest the opposite effect, if anything.
The root of the gap appears to be in the fact that high earners turn out much more often than working-class people, from whose ranks the unemployed disproportionately come. Here's how voter turnout in 2008 broke down by annual family income:
The gap between turnout of people making less than $20,000 (51.9 percent) and those making more than $100,000 (91.8 percent) is staggering. The mechanisms involved here are numerous; as one example, the poor have less voting information. But the factor _SP_ focuses on -- time -- is probably the most important. The term "leisure class" does not exist for nothing; one thing money buys is time not spent worrying about its acquisition. That time, in this case, appears to translate into greater political involvement.
July 23, 2010; 3:58 PM ET
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