Panel Paper: Group Identity Vs. Individual Preferences In Predicting Voting Behavior: Social Effects of Labor Union Membership

Saturday, November 10, 2012 : 4:10 PM
Schaefer (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Chris Finn, Goldman School of Public Policy

Political scientists, economists, and analysts have attempted for years to model and predict voting behavior. Despite years of empirical data, and numerous theoretical revisions, existing models are still challenged to reliably predict voter behavior.

With almost the lowest voter turnout rates among industrialized democracies, turnout in the U.S. is still much higher than standard theory would predict. On the other hand, empirical models are challenged by what should otherwise be yet higher turnout. Downsian theories of rational behavior face the paradox of high turnout, given that theory would, in most cases, predict individual abstention as the expected benefits are minimal compared to the costs. Empirical models that incorporate the primary predictors of turnout – education and income – are unable to explain the fact that turnout has decreased or remained level while those factors have substantially increased during a period when public policies, such as the Voting Rights Act and Motor Voter Act, should have encouraged voting.

One early revision to Downsian theory included an intrinsic reward for voting based on one’s sense of duty to vote instilled largely through education. More recent work has investigated external, or social, factors that influence turnout.

This paper examines the effects of social factors resulting from group membership on voter turnout and electoral choice. Results indicate that group membership and social factors may help explain the paradoxes of individual voting behavior, especially for more disadvantaged sectors of the population.

The particular focus will be on membership in labor unions. To date, surprisingly little research exists on the effects of labor unions on voting behavior. The studies that do exist have consistently shown a positive association between union membership and voter turnout. This paper utilizes and compares several methods to establish a causal relationship and finds the effects magnified for those otherwise least likely to participate. Policies that have a dampening effect on unionization rates, such as ‘Right to Work’ laws, may disproportionately affect marginalized sectors of the population. Paycheck Protection laws challenge the ability of unions to mobilize collective resources for the electoral process. And current attempts to restrict collective bargaining rights for public sector employees threaten a stronghold of unions. While the private sector is less than 7% unionized, the public sector is more than 36% unionized. Local government sees the highest level of any workers, at more than 40%. As the public sector, and especially local governments, struggle to maximize effectiveness and efficiency with tightly limited resources, an understanding of the response of public sector unions will be critical.