The Perverse Consequences of Electoral Reform in the United States

Adam Berinsky
American Politics Research

A number of electoral reforms have been enacted in the United States in the past three decades that are designed to increase turnout by easing restrictions on the casting of ballots. Both proponents and opponents of electoral reforms agree that these reforms should increase the demographic representativeness of the electorate by reducing the direct costs of voting, thereby increasing turnout among less-privileges groups who, presumably, are most sensitive to the costs of coming to the polls. In fact, these reforms have been greatly contested because both major political parties believe that increasing turnout among less-privileged groups will benegit Democratic politicians. I review evidence from numerous studies of electoral reform to demonstrate that reforms designed to make it easier for registered voters to cast their ballots actually increase, rather than reduce, socioeconomic biases in the composition of the voting public. I conclude with a recommendation that we shift the focus of electoral reform from an emphasis on institutional changes to a concentration on political engagement.