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When Registration Barriers Fall, Who Votes? An Empirical Test of a Rational Choice Model

  • Author(s): Brians, Craig
  • Grofman, Bernard
  • et al.
Abstract

The United States has lower turnout than almost all other long-term democracies. Low turnout in the U.S. has been blamed on a number of factors, but many authors have asserted that the personal burden placed on most voters to register in advance of the election and the need (in many states) for continued reregistration are major causes of low U.S. turnout. It is also well-known that those with higher SES characteristics tend to vote at higher rates. Indeed, the SES gap in turnout rates is higher in the United States than in other democracies. This fact has been a major concern for those who view political participation as a hallmark of democracy. Those concerned with low levels of U.S. turnout, particularly by the poor and the less well educated, have predicted that liberalizing U.S. voter registration laws will significantly improve turnout, and that the gains will be especially great among the groups who now vote at the lowest rates. Here we offer a rational choice model of turnout that leads us to expect the greatest turnout gains from virtually eliminating voter registration costs in the United States will instead accrue to those with medium income and education. We test this prediction longitudinally over the period 1972-1992 using a vast survey on political participation and a natural experiment comparing voters in states that adopted election day registration (EDR) with those residing in states maintaining more traditional closing dates. Contrary to much of the literature, citizens with medium education and medium income voted more under EDR, as the model predicts. We conclude that the methods used here better capture and empirically identify the curvilinear relationship between voter registration laws and the turnout probabilities at various SES levels.

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