Today when you hear anyone say this election is all about turnout (and you will hear it often), take a minute to consider who exactly is turning out for elections — or, more importantly, who isn't turning out.
The poorest Americans are far less likely to turn out than middle- and upper-class Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half of nonvoters have a family income of under $30,000 per year, compared to 19 percent of likely voters. Nonvoters are also far more likely to be minorities and young.
That's not just a random Election Day fact, either — it can mean a lot for what sorts of policies politicians end up supporting. For example, likely voters are slightly more likely than nonvoters to think aid programs to the poor are ineffective or even harmful.
That's not a huge majority, but there's also a more sizable divide in who uses those benefits. Nonvoters are altogether more likely to need those programs. According to Pew's data, nonvoters are more likely to be on means-tested government assistance and to have all sorts of other financial difficulties.
The class divide in voting, in other words, has a systematic impact on policies — it advantages the preferences of the rich and drains support from the programs that benefit the poor.
Why is there this class divide in who votes? There are all sorts of reasons — some people can't get out of work to vote, for example, and the decline of unionization may have disconnected many Americans from politics. In an excellent piece on this topic earlier this year, Daniel Weeks wrote at the Atlantic that black and Hispanic Americans, who are far more likely to live in poverty than whites, are also less likely to have the correct IDs. Really, more affluent Americans are more likely than the poorest Americans to participate in democracy in all kinds of ways, whether it's via voting or protests or rallies. And of course, as Nick Carnes wrote on Vox earlier this year, the rich both overwhelmingly occupy the halls of Congress (and the Supreme Court and the White House) and pay to make sure their chosen candidates get elected
And it matters in a way that's fundamental to our democracy. What it means is a representative democracy that's in danger of becoming far less representative of its population. Everyone knows inequality in the US is on the rise, but when you combine it with class divides at the polls, it means the richest Americans not only increasingly have the most money but also the most political clout.