A review of Get Out the Vote!: How to Increase Voter Turnout, by Donald Green and Alan Gerber

Many Americans don't vote. And progressive critics claim to know why: non-voters are deliberately shut out of politics by economic elites and the politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, who do their bidding. This theory alleges that parties, campaigns, free speech, and elections are little more than smoke and mirrors, obscuring the oppressive reality of millions of non-voting Americans' deliberate marginalization.

Get Out the Vote!, by Yale political scientists Donald Green and Alan Gerber, does not set out to debunk the progressive explanation of non-voting. But it does so anyway, by making clear what has been apparent for years: candidates and parties, instead of trying to keep citizens out of voting booths, have tried ever more desperately to get them in, and regularly put their limited campaign resources where their mouths are. They are often reduced to standing on doorsteps begging citizens to take the time to express their political preferences in the most basic way.

The charge that there is, in effect, a conspiracy against working-class Americans' voting has long been a favorite of progressive intellectuals, political activists, and left-liberal Democrats. Perhaps the best known of them—in no small part because their books appear on so many college reading lists—is the scholar-activist couple Frances Fox Piven and (the late) Richard Cloward, authors of Why Americans Don't Vote (1988; updated in 2000 as Why Americans Still Don't Vote And Why Politicians Want it That Way). Piven and Cloward assert that the 50-60% voter-turnout rates of the 20th century (and for that matter the early 21st) are not "natural" to American political culture, because between the 1830s and 1900 American electoral turnout reached 70-80%. Their villains are the country's economic and political elites, who supposedly sought to exclude poor and working-class Americans from the voting booth. Once turnout rates plunged, the exclusion became self-reinforcing: the main political parties took on the moderate hue of an electorate now heavily skewed toward the middle class, which further alienated the poor from formal political life. Piven and Cloward, among others, argue that this system has been maintained ever since by Republicans and corporate-friendly Democrats. The intended result is a sizable non-voting pool, disproportionately made up of low-income, low-education, and minority citizens.

This interpretation has one grand implication: if non-voters were somehow reintegrated into the electorate, U.S. politics would move dramatically to the left. As sociologist Ruy Teixeira puts it, this has been "virtually a religious principle of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition and various other left-leaning organizations." The left-liberal Nation has trumpeted the claim since at least the mid-1980s. Ralph Nader proposed to base his 2004 presidential run on appeals to (presumptively leftist) non-voters as well as independents. He blamed non-voting largely on the first explanation offered by Piven and Cloward: "Obstacles, and deliberate manipulations to undermine the right to vote." Michael Moore blamed it on the second: "there is no real choice on the ballot." And third-party types aren't the only ones to believe this. In 1993, establishment Democrats pushed successfully for a "motor voter" law to encourage voter registration, expecting to reap electoral gains. Champions of Howard Dean's presidential campaign insisted that a candidate from the Democratic Party's left wing could win if he energized left-leaning independents and non-voters. For journalists, certainly, the idea that high turnout favors Democrats is an inveterate and much beloved theme.

The progressive take on non-voting rests on two assumptions. First, it assumes that many would-be voters are deterred by registration requirements. Second, it assumes that the rest, because they lean so heavily to the left, are alienated by moderate parties and their campaign themes. A hard Left turn, then, could presumably gain votes, not lose them for the Democrats or Naderite third parties.

This interpretation has been so reassuring to American left-liberals that they have consistently resisted scattered evidence clearly at odds with it. In the late 1980s, for example, observers like Ruy Teixeira and the University of Cincinnati's Stephen Bennett pointed out that from 1960 to 1980, registration requirements were liberalized, yet turnout continued to decline anyway. Nor did turnout surge in the 1990s, even though by Piven and Cloward's own admission, "historic barriers to voter registration…were largely abolished" by the motor-voter law. And polls showed that non-voters, instead of having distinctively leftist political views, were actually a lot like the rest of the population. Nader, Dean, and others soldiered on, nonetheless.

The 2000 and 2004 presidential elections ought at last to lay this sagging interpretation to rest. These contests offered a near perfect test of the two assumptions underpinning the progressive view: registering and voting were less costly to citizens than ever; and unambiguously "progressive" candidates were in the race. Since 1984, political groups have poured substantial resources into getting people to register and vote. These efforts reached a high point in 2004, when armies of activists explored the best methods for encouraging voters.

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Get Out the Vote! is at once an informal guide for these activists and candidates (they helpfully recommend, for instance, equipping door-to-door canvassers with umbrellas when bad weather threatens) and a serious survey of findings amassed from "get out the vote" (GOTV) experiments. Their valuable findings point in one direction: face-to-face canvassing and leafleting are more successful at motivating people to vote than phone banks, direct mail, and email. Green and Gerber's bottom line: "Many nonvoters need just a nudge to motivate them to vote. A personal invitation sometimes makes all the difference."

In 2004, the citizenry was nudged. The New York Times estimates that $350 million was spent on GOTV efforts, mostly by pro-Kerry groups like America Coming Together. In targeted states, these organizations brought registration forms to people's doors and helped fill them out; double-checked that absentee voters had mailed their ballots; and offered rides to polling places. By absorbing many of the expenses of registering and voting, they virtually eliminated the cost to citizens.

And voters did increase, from about 105 million in 2000 to about 122 million in 2004, a rise from around 57% of the adult population to around 62% (if we factor out non-citizens and non-eligible felons). In some "battleground" states, turnout rose even higher: in Ohio, from 57% in 2000 to about 66%; in Florida, from 55% to 66%; and in Minnesota, from 67% to around 75%.

But three things immediately stand out. First, these turnout levels are still considerably below the 19th-century high-water marks. Tens of millions of people who were eligible to vote did not, even if they could register at the DMV or find mail-away forms on their doorstep. Second, even when voting costs were minimized and diverse ballot options were available, progressive candidates bombed. Nader netted 2.7% of the general-election vote in 2000 and less than one half of 1% in 2004. Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich contested the Democratic nomination from the left and appeared prominently in nationally-televised debates. But even with free publicity and hyperactive supporters, they jointly won less than 5 million votes from coast to coast.

Third, many of the new voters in 2004 were Republicans. Even though Kerry had the easy pickup of many of Nader's voters from 2000, Bush won almost as many new voters as Kerry did in Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, more new votes than Kerry in Virginia and Pennsylvania, half again as many as Kerry won in Florida, nearly twice as many as Kerry added in Missouri, and over three times as many as Kerry added in West Virginia. A large chunk of the formerly non-voting population turned out not to be natural leftists, after all.

In retrospect, none of this should have come as a surprise. It's true that in the past some voting procedures have clearly been designed to discourage people—and certain people more than others—from voting. But there was always something disturbing about the claim that even after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, registration procedures managed to deter tens of millions of Americans from voting. Piven and Cloward charged, "For the less well educated and the less confident, the application process can be humiliating" and too difficult to overcome. But in these same years, people with the same demographic characteristics successfully applied for credit, registered their children in school, secured mortgages, filed job applications, had cable TV installed, and bought cell phones and pagers, all of which require the same amount of effort, if not more. Claiming that these people could not handle the voter-registration process is simply extending the soft bigotry of low expectations to a new subject.

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So who are the non-voters? Michael McDonald and Samuel Popkin ("The Myth of the Vanishing Voter," American Political Science Review, December 2001), argue that their ranks are often overestimated, partly because of the growing number (since the 1970s) of resident aliens and felons not eligible to vote. Among those eligible, minorities and the poor have historically voted at lower rates than others. But it does not follow that the average non-voter is poor. If we accept McDonald and Popkin's point that turnout rates have held steady since 1972, Ruy Teixeira is still right to point out that, in the same timespan, Americans have become more educated and middle-class—so that the educationally and economically marginalized have been a declining, not a rising, share of non-voters, just as they have of the U.S. population. U.S. Census Bureau data suggest that up to 30 million non-voters in 2000 had either some college education, a bachelor's degree, or an even more advanced degree, whereas around 16 million hadn't finished high school—about one-fifth of non-voters. Quite a few are young, and come from across the socioeconomic, educational, and subcultural spectrum.

In other words, non-voters include millions of middle-class Americans. This means that while non-voters don't faithfully replicate U.S. demography, they resemble voting Americans enough for us to conclude that a historic spike in turnout is unlikely to dramatically change the partisan balance in America. It's no coincidence that many organizations like the NAACP and Rock the Vote! claim to want to increase turnout across the board but in reality only target people likely to have a predictable partisan identity (African-Americans or socially liberal youngsters, for example). This means that the sword of Damocles has lifted from over conservatives' heads: non-voters are not a reserve army of hostile leftists, as progressives had hoped and some conservatives feared.

Why, then, is America's turnout so low in comparison to many European countries? The research remains inconclusive. Piven and Cloward reject the idea that American political culture is the culprit, since 19th-century turnout was high. But maybe that period, not ours, is the aberration. From the 1830s to the 1890s, U.S. politics was dominated by party machines that orchestrated election campaigns complete with pre-printed, party-line ballots. In time, these were joined by urban machines whose patronage networks specialized in hustling people into polling booths. Voters, far from simply delighting in civic engagement, were mobilized from above. Steven Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen (political scientists at the universities of Minnesota and Chicago, respectively) have concluded more broadly that mobilization from above, though far from the participatory ideal, "is an essential part of the story of why people participate in elections."

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It just shouldn't be passed off as evidence of a mass civic impulse. Do Americans require more encouragement than Europeans, or do our parties mobilize less effectively than theirs? Given the ways in which Americans differ from Europeans, neither thesis would be startling. What would be startling is that if this were the last we heard of the progressive electoral majority, lurking just off the ballot's edge.