Making Unequal Democracy Work? The Effects of Income on Voter Turnout in Northern Italy

The forthcoming article “Making Unequal Democracy Work? The Effects of Income on Voter Turnout in Northern Italy” by Jerome Schafer, Enrico Cantoni, Giorgio Bellettini and Carlotta Berti Ceroni is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Our paper investigates the income skew in voter turnout. It is well-established that, in most western democracies, the rich vote more than the poor. Yet, it is unclear from the prior literature whether this is driven by income rather than other correlated factors like education or residential stability. A recent meta-analysis shows that, although many studies find a positive effect of income while controlling for other theoretically-important predictors of turnout, many others find no significant effect (Smets and Van Ham, 2013).We argue that this decidedly mixed evidence likely stems from three sources of bias in conventional research designs: survey misreporting, confounding, and ecological bias. Fortunately, however, leveraging administrative records can provide more reliable and credible estimates of the income-turnout relationship.

In the empirical analysis, we leverage a unique administrative panel data set matching individual tax records with voter rolls over four elections (2004-2013) in a large municipality in northern Italy. We estimate difference-in-difference models showing that within-individual changes in income lead to changes in turnout. Although these effects are modest on average due to diminishing marginal returns, we find that they can significantly impact participation among the poor, and that negative income changes tend to be more consequential than positive ones. Moreover, our aggregate-level findings reveal that that the income skew in electoral participation has increased following the Great Recession, likely as a result of the effects of income on turnout, a process that was facilitated by a crisis of mainstream political parties.

These results have important implications for theory and policy. They support the notion that individual income plays a greater a role for electoral participation in political contexts where the level of party mobilization is lower. They also lend credence to the theory that if income has an independent effect on turnout in western democracies, then rising income inequality should lead to rising turnout inequality. This may in turn reduce the political incentives for redistribution, thus suggesting that income inequality and turnout inequality may reinforce each other.

Finally, our focus on northern Italy provides a prologue to Putnam, Leonardi and Nanetti’s classic study on the region (“Making Democracy Work”, 1994). Our results show that strong civic traditions and low barriers to voting can only take us so far in explaining political participation. Even in a context such as northern Italy, where documenting an effect of income on participation will likely be hard, we find that income shocks affect turnout and broader levels of social capital. This suggests that many of our insights travel to other democracies.

About the Author(s): Jerome Schafer, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at LMU Munich, Enrico Cantoni, Foscolo Europe Research Fellow, Department of Economics, at University of Bologna, Giorgio Bellettini, Professor, Department of Economics at University of Bologna Carlotta and Carlotta Berti Ceroni, Professor, Department of Economics at University of Bologna. Their research “Making Unequal Democracy Work? The Effects of Income on Voter Turnout in Northern Italy” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Speak Your Mind



The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

%d bloggers like this: