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States With Highest Voter Turnout Have Greater Economic and Social Equity, Less Crime

by Democracy South

North Carolina Suffers from Low Voter Turnout

States with the best records of voter participation also enjoy fuller employment, a smaller gap in incomes between the rich and poor, and a more balanced tax system, according to data from a new study released today.

"There's a pay-off for civic activity that can be measured in dollars and cents," said Bob Hall of Democracy South, the nonpartisan sponsor of the study.

Montana, for example, ranks among the best 10 states for high voter turnout, a low ratio of rich to poor families, and smaller reliance on regressive taxes. By contrast, North Carolina ranks 46th for turnout, 34th for income gap and 30th for regressive taxes, and its rate of high-school dropouts is 50 percent higher than Montana's.

"It's not that the low-turnout states are poorer," said Hall, noting that the median household income in North Carolina is higher than in Montana. "It's just that the gap between the rich and poor is greater.

"When more people vote in a state, the benefits of jobs and public policy get spread more evenly," Hall noted.

"The states where a majority of adults have not voted for decades face greater inequality and social stress. If people don't, or can't, invest in their future as first-class citizens, they wind up with a second-class state."

Hall's report, called The Democracy Index, compares each state's average voter turnout rates in presidential elections from 1976 to 1992 with its ranking on 12 indicators of social and economic equity, from use of regressive taxes to per-capita crime rates. It also examines voter registration and election laws. Among the findings:

  • Ten of the 12 states with the best voter turnout records are among the 12 states with the best performance on the equity indicators. They are Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Iowa, Connecticut, and Vermont.

  • Eleven of the 14 states with turnout rates of below 50.1 percent for 1976-92 also score in the bottom 14 on the social and economic indicators. These states are South Carolina, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Texas, Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, California, Alabama, and New York.

  • The high-turnout states have a tradition of making voter registration easy, with most allowing registration very near or on Election Day. By contrast, most low-turnout states have histories of excluding potential voters, especially racial minorities and low-income whites. Even now, only one of the 14 poor turnout states allows citizens to register within 25 days of the election.

  • A strong correlation exist between a state's voter turnout rate and its combined rank on (a) income distribution, (b) tax fairness as measured by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, (c) percent of civilians employed, (d) youth unemployment, (e) high-school dropout rate, (f) crimes per-capita, (g) ratio of funding for schools versus prisons, (h) rate of births to teenager girls, (i) population with health insurance, and (j) potential for long life as measured by the Centers for Disease Control.

  • A state's turnout rate does not correlate with the state's median household income. What matters is not overall wealth, but how it is distributed.

"The encouraging news is that there's a connection between the health of a state's democracy and the well-being of its citizens," said Pete MacDowell, director of Democracy South, a project of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, North Carolina. "By getting involved, people can have an real impact on improving their lives."

"What's most distressing is the future teenagers face in these low turnout states," he pointed out. "They have much greater tendencies to dropout from school, be unemployed, commit crime, or get pregnant--yet these same states put the least resources in public schools compared to their spending for prisons."

"There's a vicious cycle of disadvantaged youth becoming disengaged, non-voting adults, which allows states to continue making education and income equity a low priority," MacDowell said.

Studies by the U.S. Census Bureau and others show that non-voters are poorer, less educated, and often say voting wouldn't affect their lives. But data from Democracy South indicate that non-voting, low- and moderate-income adults lose an opportunity to use the political process to level inequalities.

An earlier Democracy Index, prepared by Hall in 1993, showed a strong correlation between a state's voter turnout record and its use of regulations to encourage access to the ballot box and discourage the undisclosed influence of large contributions. The top 4 turnout states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine and Montana) had at least 12 of the 20 regulations examined, while only 3 of the 14 states with the worst turnout records had more than 6 such regulations.

The 14 low-turnout states include 8 from the South and 5 others with large non-white populations --states with histories of disenfranchising people of color and often low-income whites.

The National Voter Registration Act forced many states to provide new opportunities for registration, and over 9 million new people have signed up since it took effect in 1995. But major differences still exist among the states, for example, in the deadline for registering or accessibility of absentee ballots.

Many states are also enacting new regulations to address the influence of campaign contributions on elections. Data on election laws will be added to the socio-economic data released today in a new Democracy Index. The report is funded, in part, by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Schumann Foundation.

Bob Hall, the report's author, is a MacArthur Fellow and former director of the Institute for Southern Studies, which also publishes Southern Exposure magazine.

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