Political Science Electoral Reform and Voting in the United States
by
Eliott Fullmer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0241

Introduction

There is perhaps nothing more central to democratic governance than the act of voting. Casting a ballot is the mechanism through which citizens are able to hire and fire their representatives. While the United States has contributed much to the history of democracy, it consistently features lower voter turnout than nearly all other industrialized nations. In 2016, 61 percent of eligible Americans cast a ballot in the presidential election. This was one of the higher figures seen since the 1960s, but it was still considerably lower than the typical rate in much of the democratic world. Low turnout has been blamed on many factors, including winner-take-all elections, the two-party system, a sense of disillusionment by some citizens, and the inconvenience of voting. While the United States does not require citizens to vote, several electoral reforms have sought to improve participation by making voting more convenient. Reforms—mostly adopted at the state and local levels of government—have allowed voters to cast ballots before Election Day, automatically receive ballots through the mail, and register to vote at convenient times. Meanwhile, policies that require citizens to present photo identification at the polls have been accused of lowering voter participation. Further, state laws that disenfranchise those with a felony conviction effectively reduce the eligible voter pool. Political scientists have studied the evolution and effects of these policies in both texts and peer-reviewed journal articles.

Texts

Various texts have provided an overview of reform efforts and their effects. Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980 uses the 1972 and 1974 Census Population Surveys (CPS) to identify groups in the electorate more likely to vote. The text also discusses the role of registration requirements in predicting turnout. Keyssar 2009 explores the history of voting rights in the United States, while also chronicling contemporary debates regarding access to the polls. Leighley and Nagler 2014 offers a thorough analysis of voters and nonvoters since 1972, identifying a number of factors as predictors of voting. King and Hale 2016 is an edited volume that highlights research on numerous policies believed to affect turnout, including early and absentee voting, voter identification requirements, and registration rules. Springer 2014 explores electoral reform efforts from 1920 to 2000. Noting that US states have very different electoral histories, the author concludes that no single national reform has (or can) uniformly improve political participation. Rather, policies must consider a state’s historical and political context to be effective.

  • Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2009.

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    A thorough history of voting rights in the United States, including suffrage movements and modern debates over access to the polls.

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    • King, Bridgett A., and Kathleen Hale, eds. Why Don’t Americans Vote? Causes and Consequences. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2016.

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      An edited volume that explores a broad range of causes for low voter turnout in the United States, including voter apathy and the many inconveniences of the process.

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      • Leighley, Jan, and Jonathan Nagler. Who Votes Now? Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

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        A comprehensive profile and analysis of voters and nonvoters since 1972. The text identifies demographic predictors of turnout, as well as the role of various reforms aimed at increasing participation.

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        • Springer, Melanie Jean. How the States Shaped the Nation: American Electoral Institutions and Voter Turnout, 1920–2000. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

          DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226114354.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

          A thorough text that examines the importance of state norms and electoral institutions in determining political participation. The text argues that electoral reform has different effects in different states, owing to the varying challenges and historical contexts that exist across the country.

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          • Wolfinger, Raymond E., and Steven J. Rosenstone. Who Votes? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980.

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            Based on data from the Census Bureau, the authors identify social and economic groups that are most likely to vote, as well as general influences on voter participation.

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            Journals

            The American Journal of Political Science, American Political Science Review, Journal of Politics, and Political Research Quarterly are general-interest journals that cover all political science topics, including electoral reform and turnout. American Politics Research focuses on national and state-level US politics, including considerable research on electoral reform efforts in the United States. State Politics & Policy Quarterly publishes research on both policymaking and political behavior, including frequent articles on electoral reform efforts in US states. The Election Law Journal features interdisciplinary coverage of election law, policy, and administration.

            The Rationality of Voting

            Political scientists have long approached the decision to vote through a cost-benefit perspective. Applying this reasoning, citizens will choose to cast ballots when the perceived benefits outweigh the perceived costs of doing so. Downs 1957 developed the first model that sought to explain the choice to vote as a rational act. Downs argued that potential benefits included the opportunity to help one’s preferred candidate win, as well as the value that a citizen placed in democracy. Riker and Ordeshook 1968 expanded this model by introducing several additional benefits one may derive from the act of voting, including the opportunity to both affirm one’s allegiance to the political system and demonstrate support for a particular political party or ideology. Ashenfelter and Kelley 1975 theorized that voting is not only satisfying, but also entertaining for some. Ashenfelter and Kelley argued that this pleasure is derived from both the social interaction associated with voting and the psychological feeling of playing a role in the most pertinent activity of the day. Aldrich 1993 argues that political campaigns lead citizens to develop exaggerated views, as well as irrational fears, about the ways a candidate’s election will benefit their everyday lives. Edlin, et al. 2007 stresses that rational citizens can value perceived benefits both to themselves and to society. While the probability of being a pivotal voter becomes smaller as the electorate expands, the stakes of the outcome for society increase as well. These considerations lead some to believe that voting is sensible. Ferejohn and Fiorina 1974 focus on the cost side of the equation, offering a “minimax regret” explanation for voting. While failing to vote is unlikely to alter an outcome, citizens may consider it a possibility. If we assume that risk-averse persons act in a way that minimizes their maximum regret, voting is indeed rational. Kenney and Rice 1989 offers support for this theory through a study conducted in two US cities. The authors report that over one-third of respondents considered the possibility that failing to vote could cost their preferred candidate the election. Blais, et al. 1995 is more skeptical, arguing that the explanation is simply a rationalization made by those with a strong sense of civic responsibility to vote.

            • Aldrich, John H. “Rational Choice and Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 37 (1993): 246–278.

              DOI: 10.2307/2111531Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

              Voting can be explained using rational choice models, but because it is a low-cost, low-benefit activity for most citizens, minor considerations can lead someone to either participate or not participate.

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              • Ashenfelter, Orley, and Stanley Kelley Jr. “Determinants of Participation in Presidential Elections.” Journal of Law and Economics 18 (1975): 695–733.

                DOI: 10.1086/466834Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                The benefits of voting include the fact that casting a ballot is a form of recreation for some citizens. Voting may be seen as an enjoyable, social activity.

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                • Blais, Andre, Robert Young, Christopher Fleury, and Miriam Lapp. “Do People Vote on the Basis of Minimax Regret?” Political Research Quarterly 48 (1995): 827–836.

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                  Minimax-regret models are not a useful explanation for why people vote. Once other factors are considered, one’s concern that their failure to vote may alter an election does not predict participation.

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                  • Downs, Anthony. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper and Row, 1957.

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                    A classic text, first published in 1957, that presents the choice to vote within the context of a cost-benefit decision. Citizens will choose to vote when perceived benefits exceed costs.

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                    • Edlin, Aaron, Andrew Gelman, and Noah Kaplan. “Voting as a Rational Choice: Why and How People Vote to Improve the Well-Being of Others.” Rationality and Society 19 (2007): 293–314.

                      DOI: 10.1177/1043463107077384Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                      If one assumes that people have both selfish and social preferences, then voting can be a rational act. While the chances of affecting an election become smaller as the electorate expands, the consequences of the outcome grow as well.

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                      • Ferejohn, John, and Morris Fiorina. “The Paradox of Not Voting: A Decision Theoretic Analysis.” American Political Science Review 68 (1974): 525–536.

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                        While a single vote may not affect an election’s outcome, citizens often wish to avoid regret about abstaining from voting and seeing an undesirable candidate selected.

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                        • Kenney, P. J., and T. W. Rice. “An Empirical Examination of the Minimax Hypothesis.” American Politics Quarterly 17 (1989): 153–162.

                          DOI: 10.1177/1532673X8901700203Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                          Across two different cities, over one-third of respondents considered the possibility that abstaining from voting could cause their preferred candidate to lose by a single vote.

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                          • Riker, William, and Peter Ordeshook. “A Theory of the Calculus of Voting.” American Political Science Review 62 (1968): 25–42.

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                            The benefits of voting include affirming one’s support for democracy, sense of civic duty, and partisan identity.

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                            Early Voting and Vote-by-Mail Reforms

                            Since the late 1980s, states have gradually adopted laws that have liberalized procedures for voting before Election Day—both in-person and through the mail. “No-excuse early voting” typically refers to laws that allow any registered voter to complete a ballot at a physical location somewhere in their community. “No-excuse absentee voting” is the ability of any voter to receive a ballot in the mail before Election Day. While adoption of these measures is often aimed at easing the election administration process, citizens, groups, and officials have also advocated for them in the hopes of increasing turnout.

                            Adoption

                            Many studies have explored whether the adoption of no-excuse early and absentee voting laws increases turnout. In the United States, individual states determine whether such programs will be permitted. Stein 1998 suggests that early voters tend to be more partisan, politically astute, and habitual voters, suggesting that opportunities for increasing turnout may be limited. Oliver 1996 finds that early voting and liberalized absentee laws aided turnout in 1992, but only when combined with mobilization efforts by candidates and parties. Dubin and Kalsow 1996 reports that California’s no-excuse absentee program brought small gains in turnout in primaries, but not necessarily general elections. Lyons and Scheb 1999 reports that early voting programs helped retain older, infrequent voters in one Tennessee county in 1996. Several projects have applied aggregate data to the turnout question, examining the effect of early voting across the nation and, in some cases, across multiple years. Fitzgerald 2005 examines state-level turnout data from 1972 to 2002 and finds that neither no-excuse early voting nor no-excuse absentee voting laws are associated with higher turnout. Gronke, et al. 2007 studies aggregate turnout trends from 1980 to 2004 and reaches a similar conclusion. Giammo and Brox 2010 focuses on a sample of counties across multiple presidential elections, reporting that early voting causes brief spikes in turnout, but not durable ones. The authors argue that the novelty of early voting temporarily increases the perceived benefits associated with voting, but that these are not sustained in the long run. Burden, et al. 2014 treats counties as the unit of analysis, with each coded on the basis of whether or not it is in a state with various reforms, including some sort of no-excuse early or absentee voting program. The authors report that early voting actually reduces turnout. They argue that while early voting decreases the short-term costs of voting, it also leads to interactive effects that make some citizens less likely to vote. While programs allow voting on additional days, early voting also reduces both the civic atmosphere surrounding Election Day and the intensity of get-out-the-vote efforts in the community. Concerns over early voting depressing the civic nature of Election Day are also expressed in Thompson 2004 and Fortier 2006. Examining Census Population Survey (CPS) data from three elections, Larocca and Klemanski 2011 also found that no-excuse early voting laws reduce turnout, though the authors report that no-excuse absentee laws have a positive relationship with turnout.

                            • Burden, Barry C., David T. Canon, Kenneth R. Mayer, and Donald P. Moynihan. “Election Laws, Mobilization, and Turnout: The Unanticipated Consequences of Election Reform.” American Journal of Political Science 58 (2014): 95–109.

                              DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12063Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                              While early voting is popular, it is actually associated with lower turnout when implemented without laws easing the registration process.

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                              • Dubin, Jeffrey A., and Gretchen A. Kalsow. “Comparing Absentee and Precinct Voters: A View over Time.” Political Behavior 18 (1996): 369–392.

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                                No-excuse absentee voting laws are found to increase turnout in California, but only in primary elections.

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                                • Fitzgerald, Mary. “Greater Convenience but Not Greater Turnout: The Impact of Alternative Voting Methods on Electoral Participation in the United States.” American Politics Research 33 (2005): 842–867.

                                  DOI: 10.1177/1532673X04274066Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                  Examining state-level data over several decades, early voting has failed to increase turnout in places that have adopted it.

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                                  • Fortier, John C. Absentee and Early Voting: Trends, Promises, and Perils. Washington, DC: AEI, 2006.

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                                    This thorough text examines the history and development of no-excuse absentee and early voting laws across the United States.

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                                    • Giammo, Joseph D., and Brian J. Brox. “Reducing the Costs of Participation: Are States Getting a Return on Early Voting?” Political Research Quarterly 63 (2010): 295–303.

                                      DOI: 10.1177/1065912908327605Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                      Early voting makes voting more convenient for those already likely to participate, but it does not appear to increase overall turnout.

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                                      • Gronke, Paul, Eva Galanes-Rosenbaum, and Peter Miller. “Early Voting and Turnout.” PS: Political Science and Politics 40 (2007): 639–645.

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                                        While universal vote-by-mail in Oregon appears to increase turnout, early voting laws are not associated with higher state participation rates.

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                                        • Larocca, Roger, and John S. Klemanski. “Election Reform and Turnout in Presidential Elections.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly 11 (2011): 76–101.

                                          DOI: 10.1177/1532440010387401Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                          Early voting fails to increase turnout because it does not reduce the number of “trips and tasks” required of potential voters.

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                                          • Lyons, William, and John M. Scheb II. “Early Voting and the Timing of the Vote: Unanticipated Consequences of Electoral Reform.” State and Local Government Review 31 (Spring 1999): 147–152.

                                            DOI: 10.1177/0160323X9903100208Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                            Early voting appears to increase turnout among older, infrequent voters.

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                                            • Oliver, J. Eric. “The Effects of Eligibility Restrictions and Party Activity on Absentee Voting and Overall Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 40 (1996): 498–513.

                                              DOI: 10.2307/2111634Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                              Liberalized voting laws can boost turnout, but the effect also depends on the efforts of state parties to encourage their members to take advantage of these opportunities.

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                                              • Stein, Robert. “Early Voting.” Public Opinion Quarterly 62 (1998): 57–70.

                                                DOI: 10.1086/297831Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                An assessment of the early electorate and its characteristics. Identifying early voters as mostly habitual voters with strong political feelings, the author suggests that turnout gains via early voting reforms may be limited.

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                                                • Thompson, Dennis F. “Election Time: Normative Implications of Temporal Properties of the Electoral Process in the United States.” American Political Science Review 98 (2004): 51–63.

                                                  DOI: 10.1017/S0003055404000991Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                  Early voting is problematic because it reduces the communal element of Election Day, which may reduce civic trust among citizens.

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                                                  Implementation

                                                  A number of studies have assessed whether no-excuse early voting laws increase turnout if implemented a certain way. While states adopt these programs, local officials often have significant discretion when implementing them. After examining the 1992 elections in Texas, Stein and Garcia-Monet 1997 reports that counties offering more nontraditional early voting stations (such as shopping centers) had higher turnout. Other studies have focused on the density of early voting sites made available to citizens. Gimpel, et al. 2003; Dyck and Gimpel 2005; and Haspel and Knotts 2005 each report that the closer people live to their polling station, the more likely they are to vote. Within early voting states, some counties offer only a single early voting site, while others are known to offer dozens. Neeley and Richardson 1996 finds that county turnout increases as the percentage of citizens living in a town with an early voting location rises, arguing that early voting only increases convenience to a voter if a location is within a reasonable distance. In a nationwide study of US counties and early voting implementation, Fullmer 2015 found that early voting site density is positively and significantly associated with higher turnout. An additional site per 1,000 voting-age residents predicted an additional 2 to 2.4 points of added turnout in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Early voting implementation may also have unique consequences for particular racial groups. Fullmer 2014 reports that early voting sites are disproportionately fewer in heavily black counties throughout the United States, suggesting that early voting may not have achieved its turnout potential in these areas. Herron and Smith 2014 finds that Florida’s decision to eliminate several days of early voting, as well as early voting on Sundays, reduced the turnout of racial and ethnic minority groups in 2012.

                                                  • Dyck, Joshua J., and James Gimpel. “Distance, Turnout, and the Convenience of Voting.” Social Science Quarterly 86 (2005): 531–548.

                                                    DOI: 10.1111/j.0038-4941.2005.00316.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                    There is a relationship between the distance one lives from a polling site and the decision to vote. Distance is also an important predictor of choosing to request an absentee ballot.

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                                                    • Fullmer, Elliott. “The Site Gap: Racial Inequalities in Early Voting Access.” American Politics Research 43 (2014): 283–303.

                                                      DOI: 10.1177/1532673X14546987Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                      Within early voting states, counties have significant latitude in determining the number of polling locations. In 2008 and 2012, there were fewer early voting sites per capita in heavily black counties.

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                                                      • Fullmer, Elliott. “Early Voting and Turnout: Do More Sites Lead to Higher Turnout?” Election Law Journal 14 (2015): 81–96.

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                                                        Counties that choose to offer more early voting sites per capita are associated with higher turnout, even when controlling for numerous predictors of participation.

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                                                        • Gimpel, James G., J. Celeste Lay, and Jason E. Schuknecht. Cultivating Democracy: Civic Environments and Political Socialization in America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute Press, 2003.

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                                                          The distance one lives from a polling place does affect turnout, but the effects are somewhat nonlinear. Turnout is highest when polling locations are very close or particularly far away. The authors speculate that distance matters most in urban and suburban settings. In rural areas, long distances can be covered more easily, making the voting process sufficiently convenient.

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                                                          • Haspel, Moshe, and H. Gibbs Knotts. “Location, Location, Location: Precinct Placement and the Costs of Voting.” Journal of Politics 67 (2005): 560–573.

                                                            DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2508.2005.00329.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                            Using geographic information systems (GIS) tools, small changes in a voter’s distance from a polling place are found to have significant effects on the decision to vote.

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                                                            • Herron, Michael C., and Daniel A. Smith. “Race, Party, and the Consequences of Restricting Early Voting in Florida in the 2012 General Election.” Political Research Quarterly 67 (2014): 646–665.

                                                              DOI: 10.1177/1065912914524831Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                              Florida’s decision to cut early voting days in 2012 led to decreases in early voting participation by racial and ethnic minorities, registered Democrats, and those without a party affiliation. Further, the state’s decision to end early voting on the final Sunday before Election Day may have led to decreases in turnout in the state.

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                                                              • Neeley, Grant W., and Lilliard E. Richardson Jr. “The Impact of Early Voting on Turnout: The 1994 Elections in Tennessee.” State and Local Government Review 28 (1996): 173–179.

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                                                                Examining 1994 elections in Tennessee, the location of polling sites is shown to affect the extent to which an early voting program increases overall turnout.

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                                                                • Stein, Robert, and Patricia A. Garcia-Monet. “Voting Early, but Not Often.” Social Science Quarterly 78 (1997): 657–671.

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                                                                  When early voting sites are placed at familiar and popular locations within a county, turnout increases were seen in Texas during the 1992 election.

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                                                                  Universal Vote-by-Mail

                                                                  A handful of US states have adopted universal vote-by-mail (VBM) programs, whereby ballots are automatically mailed to each registered voter in the weeks preceding Election Day. These states have largely eliminated the need for physical polling places. Researchers have reported modest, but uneven, effects of VBM reforms. Southwell and Burchett 2000 finds that Oregon’s universal VBM program led to a 10 percentage point increase in turnout across three elections in 1995 and 1996. Other studies have reported more modest gains. Berinsky, et al. 2001 and Karp and Banducci 2000 find that while programs do help retain some infrequent voters, they do not tend to attract new voters. Southwell 2009 reports that universal VBM appears to be associated with higher turnout in Oregon primaries and special elections, but not general elections. Gronke and Miller 2012 largely agree, reporting turnout gains in subnational elections only. Southwell 2011, a study of Washington voters, finds that universal VBM boosts turnout in presidential years and special elections, but not in congressional elections held in national midterm years. Kousser and Mullin 2007 notes that universal VBM increased turnout by 7 percentage points in California local elections in 2000 and 2002, but also reduced participation by nearly 3 percentage points in the state’s general elections in those years.

                                                                  • Berinsky, Adam, Nancy Burns, and Michael Traugott. “Who Votes by Mail? A Dynamic Model of the Individual-Level Consequences of Voting-by-Mail Systems.” Public Opinion Quarterly 65 (2001): 178–197.

                                                                    DOI: 10.1086/322196Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                    Oregon’s universal vote-by-mail program does appear to increase turnout. It does so by retaining existing voters at higher rates, rather than by bringing new citizens into the electorate.

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                                                                    • Gronke, Paul, and Peter Miller. “Voting by Mail and Turnout in Oregon: Revisiting Southwell and Registration.” American Politics Research 40 (2012): 976–997.

                                                                      DOI: 10.1177/1532673X12457809Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                      The effects of Oregon’s universal vote-by-mail program are modest. While there was a novelty effect that boosted turnout when the program was adopted, sustained turnout increases are found only in special elections.

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                                                                      • Karp, Jeffrey A., and Susan A. Banducci. “Going Postal: How All-Mail Elections Influence Turnout.” Political Behavior 22 (2000): 223–239.

                                                                        DOI: 10.1023/A:1026662130163Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                        Oregon’s universal vote-by-mail program appears to increase turnout by better retaining existing voters. Further, the effects are most notable in elections where turnout is traditionally low, such as primaries and local elections.

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                                                                        • Kousser, T., and M. Mullin. “Does Voting by Mail Increase Participation? Using Matching to Analyze a Natural Experiment.” Political Analysis 15 (2007): 428–445.

                                                                          DOI: 10.1093/pan/mpm014Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                          Applying data from California counties in two general elections, universal vote-by-mail does not appear to increase turnout in general elections. It does, however, boost participation in traditionally low-turnout elections.

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                                                                          • Southwell, Priscilla L. “Analysis of the Turnout Effects of Vote by Mail Elections, 1980–2007.” Social Science Journal 46 (2009): 211–217.

                                                                            DOI: 10.1016/j.soscij.2008.12.010Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                            Analyzing forty-four elections over twenty-seven years in Oregon, the state’s universal vote-by-mail program is found to cause large increases in turnout in special elections, but much smaller effects are found in primary and general elections.

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                                                                            • Southwell, Priscilla L. “Letting the Counties Decide: Voter Turnout and the All-Mail Option in the State of Washington.” Politics & Policy 39 (2011): 979–996.

                                                                              DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-1346.2011.00330.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                              An analysis of turnout in eight elections in Washington State indicates that universal voting-by-mail programs within the state led to small increases in turnout during presidential election years and for special elections, but had little effect in midterm congressional elections.

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                                                                              • Southwell, Priscilla L., and Justin I. Burchett. “The Effect of All-Mail Elections on Voter Turnout.” American Politics Quarterly 28 (2000): 72–79.

                                                                                DOI: 10.1177/1532673X00028001004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                Oregon’s universal vote-by-mail program led to turnout increases of 10 points across three elections in 1995 and 1996.

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                                                                                Voter Registration Reforms

                                                                                In the United States, most states require that citizens register before casting a ballot. Those who change addresses are also required to change their registration. Traditionally, registrations must be finalized at least one week to one month before Election Day. Some have argued that these requirements serve as a burden to potential voters and effectively decrease turnout. Since the 1970s, both the federal government and individual states have adopted reforms designed to ease the burden of registration. The most notable of these policies are the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and state initiatives to allow voters to both register and cast a ballot on the same day.

                                                                                The “Motor Voter” Reform

                                                                                The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993, or “motor voter” law, required states to offer voters the opportunity to register to vote when applying for a driver’s license or public assistance. Based on their research on states that had previously adopted such reforms, Knack 1995, Rhine 1995, and Mitchell and Wlezien 1995 each predicted that the NVRA would improve both registration and turnout nationwide. Following the law’s implementation, both Martinez and Hill 1999 and Brown and Wedeking 2006 found that while the NVRA did increase voter registration, it failed to increase overall turnout. Highton and Wolfinger 1998 and Knack 1999 disagree, finding that once other factors are considered, the NVRA did have a positive effect on turnout in the 1996 elections. Rigby and Springer 2011 explores whether the motor voter law and other reforms decrease inequality in state registration rolls and turnout. The authors report that the motor voter reform did produce a slightly more egalitarian electorate, though the effects have been smaller than those generated by state-level Election Day registration (EDR) policies.

                                                                                • Brown, Robert D., and Justin Wedeking. “People Who Have Their Tickets but Do Not Use Them: Motor Voter, Registration, and Turnout Revisited.” American Politics Research 34 (2006): 479–504.

                                                                                  DOI: 10.1177/1532673X05281122Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                  The authors suggest that while the NVRA predictably increased registration rates, it did not necessarily increase turnout. They argue that it is important to consider that increasing registration does not automatically bring more people to the polls.

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                                                                                  • Highton, Benjamin, and Raymond E. Wolfinger. “Estimating the Effects of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.” Political Behavior 20 (1998): 79–104.

                                                                                    DOI: 10.1023/A:1024851912336Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                    The authors predict that the NVRA, once in place for a sufficient amount of time, will have its greatest impact among individuals with moderate levels of motivation. Those with ample motivation are already willing to go through the registration protocol, while disinterested voters will not be affected by a modest easing of the process.

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                                                                                    • Knack, Stephen. “Does Motor Voter Work? Evidence from State-Level Data.” Journal of Politics 57 (1995): 796–811.

                                                                                      DOI: 10.2307/2960193Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                      Using data from 1976 to 1992, the author finds that state-level motor voter programs implemented before the 1993 national law significantly increased voter turnout rates.

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                                                                                      • Knack, Stephen. “Drivers Wanted: Motor Voter and the Election of 1996.” PS: Political Science and Politics 61 (1999): 237–243.

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                                                                                        While the first presidential election following the NVRA did not produce higher nationwide turnout, the author argues that the turnout decline would have been steeper without the registration reform.

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                                                                                        • Martinez, Michael D., and David Hill. “Did Motor Voter Work?” American Politics Quarterly 27 (1999): 296–315.

                                                                                          DOI: 10.1177/1532673X99027003002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                          Applying turnout and exit poll data from the states, the authors report that the NVRA had no significant effect on turnout.

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                                                                                          • Mitchell, Glenn E., and Christopher Wlezien. “The Impact of Legal Constraints on Voter Registration, Turnout, and the Composition of the Electorate.” Political Behavior 17 (1995): 179–202.

                                                                                            DOI: 10.1007/BF01498813Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                            Using data from both the US Census and the National Election Studies from 1972 to 1982, the authors predict that if the United States had liberalized voter registration laws, turnout could increase by nearly eight percentage points.

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                                                                                            • Rhine, Staci L. “Registration Reform and Turnout Change in the American States.” American Politics Quarterly 23 (1995): 409–426.

                                                                                              DOI: 10.1177/1532673X9502300404Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                              States that adopted motor voter programs before the NVRA saw increases in turnout, leading the author to argue that further increases are likely once the national law is fully implemented.

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                                                                                              • Rigby, Elizabeth, and Melanie J. Springer. “Does Electoral Reform Increase (or Decrease) Political Equality?” Political Research Quarterly 64 (2011): 420–434.

                                                                                                DOI: 10.1177/1065912909358582Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                Some electoral reforms, including laws that make voter registration easier, enhance the representativeness of the electorate.

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                                                                                                Election Day Registration

                                                                                                Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980 and Vonnahme 2012 each report that state registration deadlines can affect turnout. States that set them closer to Election Day are associated with higher participation, as more voters have begun paying attention before registration closes. Some states have chosen to allow citizens to both register and vote on Election Day (EDR states). Both Fenster 1994 and Knack 2001 report that EDR increases turnout in national midterm elections by 6 points, while Brians and Grofman 2001 finds that participation in presidential elections rises 7 percentage points with the adoption of EDR. In a comprehensive book on the history and effects of liberalized registration laws, Hanmer 2009 reports that EDR’s effects on turnout are often positive, but more modest. States with early voting sometimes allow voters to register and vote at early voting sites. Burden, et al. 2014 finds that these same-day registration (SDR) states are associated with an additional 2.5 points of turnout for every ten days of registration and voting that they allow. Registration reforms do not necessarily affect all citizens equally. Brians and Grofman 1999 finds that the greatest effects of EDR laws are on high school graduates with medium levels of income. Analyzing presidential elections from 1972 to 2008, Leighley and Nagler 2014 reports that reforms increase the likelihood of voting among younger, middle-income citizens.

                                                                                                • Brians, Craig, and Bernard Grofman. “When Registration Barriers Fall, Who Votes?” Public Choice 99 (1999): 161–176.

                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1023/A:1018346602250Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                  Assessing survey data from 1972 to 1992, the authors conclude that turnout gains due to Election Day registration (EDR) laws come disproportionately from middle-income and middle-educated citizens.

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                                                                                                  • Brians, Craig, and Bernard Grofman. “Election Day Registration’s Effect on US Voter Turnout.” Social Science Quarterly 82 (2001): 170–183.

                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1111/0038-4941.00015Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                    Using Current Population Survey (CPS) data from 1972 to 1996, EDR laws are found to increase turnout, especially for middle-income citizens with a high school education.

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                                                                                                    • Burden, Barry C., David T. Canon, Kenneth R. Mayer, and Donald P. Moynihan. “Election Laws, Mobilization, and Turnout: The Unanticipated Consequences of Election Reform.” American Journal of Political Science 58 (2014): 95–109.

                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12063Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                      In both aggregate and individual-level analyses from the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, EDR is positively associated with higher turnout. Early voting, however, is not found to produce similar gains.

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                                                                                                      • Fenster, Mark J. “The Impact of Allowing Day of Registration Voting on Turnout in US Elections from 1960 to 1992.” American Politics Quarterly 22 (1994): 74–87.

                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1177/1532673X9402200105Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                        States adopting Election Day registration laws enjoy increased turnout for both presidential elections and midterm elections. The author estimates that a nationwide law allowing Election Day registration would increase turnout by 5 percentage points.

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                                                                                                        • Hanmer, Michael. Discount Voting. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

                                                                                                          DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511605338Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                          A comprehensive history of the adoption and implementation of Election Day registration (EDR) laws. While programs are seen to increase turnout, the effects are modest. Electoral reform is not a panacea for the country’s chronically low turnout.

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                                                                                                          • Knack, Stephen. “Election-Day Registration.” American Politics Research 29 (2001): 65–78.

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                                                                                                            States that adopted EDR laws in the 1990s experienced the same increases in turnout as states that adopted programs decades earlier. In each case, new EDR programs are associated with a turnout increase of about 6 percentage points in midterm elections and 3 percentage points in presidential elections.

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                                                                                                            • Leighley, Jan, and Jonathan Nagler. Who Votes Now? Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

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                                                                                                              A comprehensive profile and analysis of voters and nonvoters since 1972. The text notes that EDR reforms appear to increase turnout among younger, middle-income citizens.

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                                                                                                              • Vonnahme, Greg. “Registration Deadlines and Turnout in Context.” Political Behavior 34 (2012): 765–779.

                                                                                                                DOI: 10.1007/s11109-011-9174-9Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                Shorter registration deadlines directly increase turnout by expanding the number of citizens able to register before an election. Further, these new registrants create an additional, indirect effect on turnout, as they influence others to vote through their social networks.

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                                                                                                                • Wolfinger, Raymond E., and Steven J. Rosenstone. Who Votes? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980.

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                                                                                                                  Based on data from 1972 and 1974, states that take steps to ease the voter registration process may see increased voter participation.

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                                                                                                                  Voter Identification Laws

                                                                                                                  During the 2000s, many US states began requiring voters to present identification (ID) at the polls to vote. While some states accept various forms of identification, several require a photo ID. Brennan Center for Justice 2006 reports that 11 percent of US citizens lack photo identification, leading some to believe that these laws may reduce turnout. Biggers and Hanmer 2017 finds that a state’s propensity to adopt identification laws increases when a Republican legislature and governor assume power and a state’s black and Latino populations are larger. Research remains mixed on the effect of identification laws. Mycoff, et al. 2009 reports that aggregate turnout is largely unaffected by voter identification requirements. Erikson and Minnite 2009 reports inconclusive findings, noting that a turnout decline is possible but cannot be confirmed with existing data. Other studies more confidently assert a negative relationship between identification requirements and turnout. Vercellotti and Andersen 2009 reports a negative relationship between voter turnout and new ID laws in 2004 among Hispanic citizens, while Alvarez, et al. 2008 uses CPS data to show that having to present photo identification does depress the turnout of registered voters, particularly among nonwhites. Bright and Lynch 2017 finds that while voter identification requirements may reduce turnout, this effect is reversible if sufficient information about obtaining an ID is made available to citizens.

                                                                                                                  • Alvarez, R. Michael, Delia Bailey, and Jonathan N. Katz. The Effect of Voter Identification Laws on Turnout. Social Science Working Paper 1267R. Pasadena: California Institute of Technology, 2008.

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                                                                                                                    The authors use Census Population Survey (CPS) data to demonstrate that the strictest forms of voter identification laws do reduce turnout, especially among less educated and lower income populations.

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                                                                                                                    • Biggers, Daniel R., and Michael J. Hanmer. “Understanding the Adoption of Voter Identification Laws in the American States.” American Politics Research 45 (2017): 560–588.

                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1177/1532673X16687266Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                      Statewide adoption of voter identification laws is most likely when a state legislature switches from Democratic to Republican control and the state has a larger black or Latino population.

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                                                                                                                      • Brennan Center for Justice. Citizens without Proof: A Survey of American’s Possession of Documentary Proof of Citizenship and Photo Identification. New York: Brennan Center for Justice, 2006.

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                                                                                                                        Up to 11 percent of US citizens lack an unexpired, government-issued photo identification card. The figure is notably higher among low-income, elderly, and racial and ethnic minority groups.

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                                                                                                                        • Bright, Chelsie L. M., and Michael S. Lynch. “Kansas Voter ID Laws: Advertising and Its Effects on Turnout.” Political Research Quarterly 70 (2017): 340–347.

                                                                                                                          DOI: 10.1177/1065912917691638Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                          While voter identification laws can hurt turnout, counties that take extra steps to advertise the laws can mitigate these effects.

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                                                                                                                          • Erikson, Robert S., and Lorraine C. Minnite. “Modeling Problems in the Voter Identification–Voter Turnout Debate.” Election Law Journal 8 (2009): 85–101.

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                                                                                                                            While the authors believe that voter identification requirements may reduce turnout, current data cannot support the claim. Notably, the authors argue that the Census Population Survey (CPS), which relies on self-reports to identify voters and nonvoters, is not suited to address the question.

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                                                                                                                            • Mycoff, Jason D., Michael W. Wagner, and David C. Wilson. “The Empirical Effects of Voter-ID Laws: Present or Absent?” PS: Political Science and Politics 42 (2009): 121–126.

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                                                                                                                              Using data from the 2006 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), the authors find no evidence that voter identification requirements reduce turnout.

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                                                                                                                              • Vercellotti, Timothy, and David Andersen. “Voter-Identification Requirements and the Learning Curve.” PS: Political Science & Politics 42 (2009): 117–120.

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                                                                                                                                New voter identification laws appear to reduce turnout among Hispanics, though there is some evidence of a “learning effect.” As citizens become aware of ID laws, they become more likely to obtain the necessary document to participate.

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                                                                                                                                Felon Disenfranchisement Laws

                                                                                                                                In the United States, some states restrict the ability of ex-felons to reclaim their voting rights. Uggen and Manza 2002, Manza and Uggen 2006, and Burch 2012 find that felon disenfranchisement can slightly reduce turnout. Manza and Uggen 2006 links long-term declines in voter participation to the expansion of disenfranchised populations. Grose and Yoshinaka 2005 argues that among southern states, voter turnout in states that disenfranchise ex-felons is lower. According to Mauer 2004, disenfranchisement laws may even depress turnout among those legally able to cast ballots, as enthusiasm in communities with large numbers of disenfranchised citizens may be diminished. Bowers and Preuhs 2009 adds that this phenomenon may be more prevalent among racial and ethnic minority groups and those with lower socioeconomic status. In states where they are permitted to vote, Gerber, et al. 2015 reports that outreach to ex-felons is effective at increasing turnout among this population. Miles 2004 disagrees, reporting that turnout is practically unaffected by disenfranchisement laws because ex-felons are unlikely to vote regardless of whether they are legally allowed to.

                                                                                                                                • Bowers, Melanie, and Robert Preuhs. “Collateral Consequences of a Collateral Penalty: The Negative Effect of Felon Disenfranchisement Laws on the Political Participation of Nonfelons.” Social Science Quarterly 90 (2009): 722–743.

                                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2009.00640.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                  Strict felon disenfranchisement laws do reduce voter turnout among certain groups, including African Americans and those with lower socioeconomic status.

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                                                                                                                                  • Burch, Traci. “Did Disfranchisement Laws Help Elect President Bush? New Evidence on the Turnout Rates and Candidate Preferences of Florida’s Ex-Felons.” Political Behavior 34 (2012): 1–26.

                                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1007/s11109-010-9150-9Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                    Felon disenfranchisement reduces turnout, though the participation rate among this group is typically low even when voting rights are restored. The author believes that disenfranchisement policies in Florida did not help George W. Bush defeat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.

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                                                                                                                                    • Gerber, Alan S., Gregory Huber, Marc Meredith, Daniel R. Biggers, and David J. Hendry. “Can Incarcerated Felons Be (Re)Integrated into the Political System? Results from a Field Experiment.” American Journal of Political Science (2015): 912–926.

                                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12166Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                      Using administrative data from Connecticut, the authors find that an informational outreach campaign to ex-felons can produce notably higher turnout rates among this population (in states where voting is permitted).

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                                                                                                                                      • Grose, Christian R., and Antoine Yoshinaka. “Partisan Politics and Electoral Design: The Enfranchisement of Felons and Ex-Felons in the U.S., 1960–1999.” State and Local Government Review 37 (2005): 49–60.

                                                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1177/0160323X0503700104Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                        The authors find that state laws expanding voting rights to felons and ex-felons tend to occur when Democrats control government.

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                                                                                                                                        • Manza, Jeff, and Christopher Uggen. Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

                                                                                                                                          DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195149326.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                          A comprehensive history and review of felon disenfranchisement laws in the United States.

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                                                                                                                                          • Mauer, Marc. “Felon Disenfranchisement: A Policy Whose Time Has Passed?Human Rights 31.1 (2004).

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                                                                                                                                            This short article argues that felon disenfranchisement laws run opposed to the fundamental aims of a democratic society. It notes that states are increasingly relaxing their disenfranchisement laws.

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                                                                                                                                            • Miles, Thomas J. “Felon Disenfranchisement and Voter Turnout.” Journal of Legal Studies 33 (2004): 85–129.

                                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.1086/381290Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                              The overall effect of felon disenfranchisement policies is minimal, because ex-felons vote at very low rates, even when rights are restored following the competition of a sentence.

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                                                                                                                                              • Uggen, Christopher, and Jeff Manza. “Democratic Contraction? The Political Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States.” American Sociological Review 67 (2002): 777–803.

                                                                                                                                                DOI: 10.2307/3088970Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                Felon disenfranchisement laws affect turnout and, as a result, the outcome of some US Senate and presidential elections.

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                                                                                                                                                Compulsory Voting

                                                                                                                                                While compulsory voting laws do not exist in the United States, many nations around the world have adopted them. Though compulsory voting laws are often lightly enforced, or unenforced entirely, research suggests that they do increase turnout. In a broad review of countries that have adopted compulsory voting laws, Birch 2009 estimates that, on average, the policies have increased turnout by nearly 14 percentage points. Fowler 2013 finds that the adoption of compulsory voting in Australia increased turnout by 24 percentage points. Singh 2014 reports that after it ended its compulsory voting policy in 2012, Chile saw significant decreases in participation. Lijphart 1997 finds that compulsory voting reduces inequality in turnout, as the electorate better reflects the socioeconomic characteristics of the citizenry. Research has also explored how political outcomes differ because of compulsory voting laws. Fowler 2013 finds that both vote and seat shares for Australia’s Labor Party have improved by 7 to 10 percentage points because of compulsory voting. This is consistent with Bennett and Resnick 1990, which reports that nonvoters in the United States are typically more likely than voters to support social welfare spending. Not all studies have found compulsory voting would change election outcomes in the United States. Sides, et al. 2008 notes that if everyone had voted in the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential elections, partisan vote shares would have changed little. Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980 and Highton and Wolfinger 2001 agree, adding that the preferences of nonvoters are well represented by the opinions of voters.

                                                                                                                                                • Bennett, Stephen Earl, and David Resnick. “The Implications of Nonvoting for Democracy in the United States.” American Journal of Political Science 34 (1990): 771–802.

                                                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.2307/2111398Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                  Nonvoters are more supportive of social welfare policies than voters, but they are not necessarily more supportive of government ownership over industries.

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                                                                                                                                                  • Birch, Sarah. Full Participation: A Comparative Study of Compulsory Voting. Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2009.

                                                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719077623.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                    A thorough text that examines the history of compulsory voting and its effects on political participation, electoral integrity, and election outcomes.

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                                                                                                                                                    • Fowler, Anthony. “Electoral and Policy Consequences of Voter Turnout: Evidence from Compulsory Voting in Australia.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 8 (2013): 159–182.

                                                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1561/100.00012055Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                      The adoption of compulsory voting in Australia dramatically increased both voter turnout and the vote share earned by the Labor Party.

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                                                                                                                                                      • Highton, Benjamin, and Raymond E. Wolfinger. “The Political Implications of Higher Turnout.” British Journal of Political Science 31 (2001): 179–192.

                                                                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1017/S0007123401210084Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                        Many assume that if everyone in the United States voted, the Democratic Party would benefit. The authors argue that this is a flawed assumption, as it assumes that preferences of nonvoters would not shift if they became voters.

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                                                                                                                                                        • Lijphart, Arend. “Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma.” American Political Science Review 91 (1997): 1–14.

                                                                                                                                                          DOI: 10.2307/2952255Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                          Compulsory voting helps create an electorate that better reflects the characteristics of a country’s citizenry.

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                                                                                                                                                          • Sides, John, Eric Schickler, and Jack Citrin. “If Everyone Had Voted, Would Bubba and Dubya Have Won?” Presidential Studies Quarterly 38 (2008): 521–539.

                                                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-5705.2008.02659.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                            If every US citizen voted, the vote share received by the major parties would only change slightly. However, the differences could be enough to change the outcome of close elections.

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                                                                                                                                                            • Singh, Shane P. “Beyond Turnout: The Consequences of Compulsory Voting.” Political Insight 5 (2014): 22–25.

                                                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.1111/2041-9066.12058Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                              Countries hoping to increase turnout do not need to adopt compulsory voting, though doing so is the most reliable method of increasing turnout.

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                                                                                                                                                              • Wolfinger, Raymond E., and Steven J. Rosenstone. Who Votes? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980.

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                                                                                                                                                                Based on data from the US Census Bureau, the authors identify social and economic groups that are most likely to vote, as well as general influences on voter participation.

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