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7.3: Decision-making and Power

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    Much of the decision-making in the United States is done by elected officials. People who are allowed to vote, and who choose to vote have some influence on who gets elected. Voting is important and is one aspect of representation, a potential equalizer in a country in which some decisions are made via direct democracy (each individual has a vote) and others are made by representative democracy (elected representatives.)

    But as we will explore in this section, there are other factors that affect elections and equity.

    Who votes?

    There are a variety of reasons that people don’t vote in local, state, and national elections. Thomas Jefferson is known for saying, “We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” Ironically Jefferson was a part of the legislature that limited which people in the United States actually had the right to vote. In fact, what he could have said was “We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority of people whom we have allowed to vote and who participate. This text aims to examine how institutions still limit voting rights both explicitly and implicitly.

    Voter Registration across the United States

    Elections are state-by-state contests. They include general elections for president and statewide offices (e.g., governor and U.S. senator), and they are often organized and paid for by the states. Because political cultures vary from state to state, the process of voter registration also varies. For example, suppose an 85-year-old retiree with an expired driver’s license wants to register to vote. He or she might be able to register quickly in California or Florida, but a current government ID might be required prior to registration in Texas or Indiana.

    The varied registration and voting laws across the United States have long caused controversy. In the aftermath of the Civil War, southern states enacted literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and other requirements intended to disenfranchise Black voters in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. Literacy tests were long and detailed exams on local and national politics, history, and more. They were often administered arbitrarily with more Blacks required to take them than Whites.[1] Consider this along with the practice of providing schooling only to White children. Poll taxes required voters to pay a fee to vote. Grandfather clauses exempted individuals from taking literacy tests or paying poll taxes if they or their fathers or grandfathers had been permitted to vote prior to a certain point in time. While the Supreme Court determined that grandfather clauses were unconstitutional in 1915, states continued to use poll taxes and literacy tests to deter potential voters from registering.[2] States also ignored instances of violence and intimidation against African Americans wanting to register or vote.[3]

    The ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964 ended poll taxes, but the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 had a more profound effect. The act protected the rights of minority voters by prohibiting state laws that denied voting rights based on race. The VRA gave the attorney general of the United States authority to order federal examiners to areas with a history of discrimination. These examiners had the power to oversee and monitor voter registration and elections. States found to violate provisions of the VRA were required to get any changes in their election laws approved by the U.S. attorney general or by going through the court system. However, in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, threw out the standards and process of the VRA, effectively gutting the landmark legislation.[4] This decision effectively pushed decision-making and discretion for election policy in VRA states to the state and local level. Several such states subsequently made changes to their voter ID laws and North Carolina changed its plans for how many polling places were available in certain areas. Texas also restricted voting based on photo identification;these changes often do not have a neutral effect. In fact when the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down one North Carolina law in 2016 they found that it targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

    Figure 7.5. The Voting Rights Act (a) was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson (b, left) on August 6, 1965, in the presence of major figures of the civil rights movement, including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. (b, center).

    The effects of the VRA were visible almost immediately. In Mississippi, only 6.7 percent of Blacks were registered to vote in 1965; however, by the fall of 1967, nearly 60 percent were registered. Alabama experienced similar effects, with African American registration increasing from 19.3 percent to 51.6 percent. Voter turnout across these two states similarly increased. Mississippi went from 33.9 percent turnout to 53.2 percent, while Alabama increased from 35.9 percent to 52.7 percent between the 1964 and 1968 presidential elections.[5]

    Following the implementation of the VRA, many states have sought other methods of increasing voter registration. Several states make registering to vote relatively easy for citizens who have government documentation. Oregon has few requirements for registering and registers many of its voters automatically. North Dakota has no registration at all. In 2002, Arizona was the first state to offer online voter registration, which allowed citizens with a driver’s license to register to vote without any paper application or signature. The system matches the information on the application to information stored at the Department of Motor Vehicles, to ensure each citizen is registering to vote in the right precinct. Citizens without a driver’s license still need to file a paper application. More than eighteen states have moved to online registration or passed laws to begin doing so. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates, however, that adopting an online voter registration system can initially cost a state between $250,000 and $750,000.[6]

    Other states have decided against online registration due to concerns about voter fraud and security. Legislators also argue that online registration makes it difficult to ensure that only citizens are registering and that they are registering in the correct precincts. As technology continues to update other areas of state recordkeeping, online registration may become easier and safer. In some areas, citizens have pressured the states and pushed the process along. A bill to move registration online in Florida stalled for over a year in the legislature, based on security concerns. With strong citizen support, however, it was passed and signed in 2015, despite the governor’s lingering concerns. In other states, such as Texas, some are concerned about identity fraud, so traditional paper registration has been preferred until the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has renewed interest in voting methods other than in-person.

    Voting by Mail

    Oregon was the first state to enact postal voting, or “vote-by mail” in the United States, in 1998. Voter turn-out dramatically increased with this adaptation and Oregon continues to have one of the highest participation rates in the country. As of 2020, Colorado, Hawaii, Washington, and Utah have all converted to vote-by-mail elections. The coronavirus pandemic has raised concerns about people visiting crowded polling places in person during 2020 and 46 states are loosening restrictions on vote-by-mail. To investigate the current status of voting in each state, consult this website.

    Research repeatedly shows that allowing people to vote by mail increases participation. A draft working paper of a Stanford University study found that postal voting in Colorado increased voter participation by ten percent. Notably, turnout amongst groups less likely to vote increased even more: 16 percentage points among young people, 13% among African-Americans, 11% among Asian-Americans, and 10 percentage points amongst Latinx Americans, blue-collar workers, those without a high school diploma, and those with less than $10,000 of wealth.[7]

    President Donald Trump has stated that postal voting is vulnerable to fraud, but other Republican lawmakers are divided on the issue, while Democratic lawmakers generally support this effort. Experts, including researchers and political science professors, do not believe that voting by mail is likely to increase fraud.

    Barriers to Voting

    Although the right to vote is more equitably distributed than in the past, institutional and societal factors still influence who actually votes. If there were times that you didn’t vote, what got in the way? A busy life might keep you from voting.

    Socioeconomic Status

    When voting is limited to one day (e.g. twelve hours in November) people who have more restrictive work, school, parenting, childcare, or other schedules will have more challenges in getting to the polling location during the limited time. Workers in jobs with less autonomy (e.g. retail, clerical, and blue-collar workers) have less flexibility on voting day than those in managerial or professional positions. Transportation can be a factor; personal vehicles provide the most efficiency in a busy life. Using shared vehicles, public transportation, bicycles and walking (while more cost and energy effective) all take longer.

    If you are a working parent faced with choosing between getting food on the table for your two young children or transporting them, and waiting in line to vote in the election, which do you choose? If you need to race home from work so that your partner can use your shared vehicle to get to their evening shift, do you then go take a bus to vote? Families with a lower Socioeconomic Status are more likely to have a combination of these factors that contribute to having less flexibility and less time. Families who have more resources in general have more resources related to political activity and are more likely to participate in voting in person. Those that are unemployed are the least likely to vote.

    Photograph of a man sitting on a bench outside of a public building.
    Figure 7.6. Families with a lower socioeconomic status face more barriers getting to polling stations.

    People with Disabilities

    People with disabilities vote at a 6% lower rate than people who do not have disabilities and share other demographic characteristics, as measured by Rutgers University in the 2016 election.[8] Why might that be? One factor may be the polling places themselves. The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) observed 178 polling places during that same election. They found that 60% of the polling places had some kind of physical impediment between the parking lot and the entry to the buildings. Of the 137 that could be observed inside, 65% had polling stations that could impede someone casting their votes independently.[9]

    Figure 7.7. Voters with disabilities often face physical barriers to voting, including inaccessible parking, paths, and entrances.

    There are efforts underway to improve access to and participation in voting amongst people with disabilities. The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) is working in selected states to increase voter registration and turnout. REVUP (Register, Educate, Vote, Use your Power) has shown a 1% increase in the voting participation of people with disabilities in REVUP states compared with non REVUP states between 2014 and 2018.[10] This is a small increase in a very large sample and it is difficult to say if REVUP is the main factor. If you are interested in REVUP’s work, click here.

    People Who have been Convicted of Crimes

    The majority of states in the United States limit people who have been convicted of felonies from voting, at least during the time that they are incarcerated. (The exceptions are Maine and Vermont.) Variances amongst states include whether rights are lost just while incarcerated, while still serving parole and/or probation or whether rights are restored automatically after release. Oregon is one of sixteen states plus the District of Columbia that automatically restore rights.[11]

    Stylized photograph of a jail cell.
    Figure 7.8. Bedford, NY jail cell in use as of 2008.

    There are eleven states that have additional restrictions including the payment of fees, fines, and restitution before voting rights are restored. These kinds of restrictions treat families unevenly; individuals who have lower income and no accumulated wealth will be less likely to be able to access their voting rights than will people with wealth and means. In July 2020 the Supreme Court of the United States left in place a lower-court order that means that hundreds of thousands of people with felonies who owe fines, fees, and restitution in Florida will be unable to vote in elections. This ruling appears to conflict with a 2018 citizen vote with bipartisan support to amend the constitution and allow felons to vote in Florida.

    Generally, the trend over the last few decades by states is to restore voting rights to felons once they are released. There are variations state by state as these movements go forward. What is your viewpoint about the right to vote and how it overlaps with people who have committed crimes? Do you think that people serving time should be able to vote? What about those who have rehabilitated and/or paid a debt to society? What about those same people whether they are poor or rich? Should Socioeconomic Status affect the right to vote?

    Younger, Less Educated, and Latinx

    Photograph of a sign showing where a polling place is located.
    Figure 7.9. People who are older, non-Hispanic, and more educated are most likely to vote

    In general, voter turnout in the United States is higher during presidential elections which occur every four years. In measurements between 1984 through 2016, people who are older, Non-Hispanic, and more educated are most likely to vote. Those who are 60+ years old vote the most, followed by those aged 45-59 years, then by those aged 30-44 years, and with 18 to 29 years old having the lowest likelihood of voting with more than double 60+ year-old voting (65%) compared with 31% of 18 to 29 year-olds voting in the 2018 election. It could be argued that the youngest citizens have the most at stake and could have the greatest impact on the future of the United States and yet they are voting less. In your viewpoint, what is behind the numbers that indicate younger, less educated and Latinx people are voting less?

    Feeling Disenfranchised

    There are times when people feel so disconnected from the process of democracy and representation that voting seems hopeless. If elected officials repeatedly fail to discuss issues of importance to a person or their family, or if the decision outcomes are consistently inadequate, people may develop apathy toward the voting process. Growing up in a family where the parent(s) don’t vote or who express cynicism or distrust toward representatives and the voting process also impacts children’s view of the system and participation. As discussed at length in this chapter, there has been a great deal of effort made to limit people of color, the poor, and immigrants from voting in at least some states. It’s hard to think that you belong and that your vote matters when institutions work against your voting rights.

    Photo of a woman standing at a podium and speaking.
    Figure 7.10. Wendy McElroy, a Canadian individualist feminist and anarcho-capitalist writer, speaking in Springfield Illinois, 2006.

    “Voting is not an act of political freedom. It is an act of political conformity. Those who refuse to vote are not expressing silence. They are screaming in the politician’s ear: ‘You do not represent me. This is not a process in which my voice matters. I do not believe you’.” – Wendy McElroy.

    In some states, one political party (Democratic or Republican) has such a majority position that if you are a member of the other dominant party or of an alternative party, it may not seem “worth it” to vote. They may feel that their vote doesn’t make a difference or that the election is not a competitive one.

    Influencing elections: Money and Technology

    It’s no secret that there is a lot of money involved in elections in the United States; it is one of a handful of countries that allows unlimited donations to campaigns and unlimited spending. This both favors the wealthy (who can run for office and who can influence elections via donations) but it also means that candidates who are pursuing office can never stop fundraising; as long as they know that their opponent can raise more money, they also stay in the race for dollars. We will look at how money impacts both local and national elections.

    First, consider those elections that don’t get much media attention. Does your city have an elected council? How about your school board? Are judges elected or appointed in your area? Is there a County Board of Commissioners? Take a minute to think about what you know about how those folx get those jobs. Are those paid jobs? Do they pay enough to support an individual or family? Many of them are elected positions, although they are not paid. For example, in Corvallis, Oregon neither the school board nor the City Council are paid positions. The Benton County Commissioner positions (of which Corvallis is a part) are paid; three Commissioners each make between $84,000 and $94,100 in 2019.[12] Typically salaries of public employees are public information and you can find it via an internet search on the entity’s website or in a newspaper report on salary negotiations.

    We ask these questions for several reasons. First, those decision-makers affect all of our lives. If you question whether or not a school board member affects your daily life, consider those board members who are now deciding how and if school will be held during the COVID-19 pandemic. Consider the recent national and local debates about what kinds of bathrooms and locker rooms students can access, and who determines which students will use which bathrooms. Elected offi when those positions are not paid, think about who is likely to have the time available to hold an unpaid position. Corvallis School Board Members are expected to devote time to reading policies, citizen input, budget documents, and related research as well as participating in trainingtrainings, committee discussions, and formal meetings. The time commitment varies from five to twenty hours per week and is unpredictable. This time commitment is similar for City Council members; remember that both positions are unpaid.

    Given this context, it is likely that people who have a high enough income or accumulated wealth, a career that allows flexibility in work hours, or retired will be more likely to be able to afford the time to work in these positions. While it is important to appreciate these public servants, it is also important to acknowledge that the decision-makers are more likely to be older, have greater income and wealth, and more education. How do you think this might influence the discussions the groups have and the decisions that they make? How would families benefit from a system that is more representative of the communities served?

    Now let’s look at the elections that get more attention in the media: state and federal elections. While local elections fundraise, the big money is in state and federal competitions. And as a 2014 article on headlines, “Money is pretty good predictor of who will win elections.”[13] This is not an absolute, but it does happen most of the time: the campaign that raises the most money is most likely to win. Since candidates can spend as much of their own money as they want, being rich makes a difference. In the 2014 national election, 94 percent of biggest House race spenders won and 82 percent of biggest Senate race spenders won. While it is not true that the richest candidate always wins (for example Michael Bloomberg, a candidate for the Presidential Democratic nomination is exponentially more wealthy with a 61.8 billion dollar net worth than Joe Biden, the winner of the nomination with a 9 million dollar net worth)[14] It is true that most people who are able to devote the time it takes to run for national office are very wealthy.

    What does it mean that the folx that debate and decide national policy are among the most wealthy in the country? It is estimated that about half of the members of the U.S. Congress and Senate have a net worth of a million dollars.[15] (Remember that wealth is different than income; the average salary is $174,000/ year so having a net worth this high implies accumulated and inherited wealth). A chart here shows how the wealth is distributed among Senators and Congressional Representatives. It is ironic to have these same lawmakers limiting unemployment benefits and criticizing the lowest income earners in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. Senator Ted Cruz (R- Texas) was quoted on the television show Face the Nation, saying, “The problem is, for 68% of people receiving it right now, they are being paid more on unemployment than they made in their job. And I’ll tell you, I’ve spoken to small business owners all over the state of Texas who are trying to reopen and they’re calling their- their waiters and waitresses … they’re calling their busboys, and they won’t come back. And, of course, they won’t come back because the federal government is paying them, in some instances, twice as much money to stay home.”

    7.3: Decision-making and Power is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Elizabeth B. Pearce (OpenOregon) .

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