Coase-Sandor Working Paper Series in Law and Economics

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Law & Economics Working Papers


This paper makes use of variation in the timing of local elections to shed light on one of the core questions in democratic politics: what would happen if everyone voted? Does a low voter turnout rate imply that a small subset of special interest voters controls politics and policy? Or, are voters largely representative of non-voters such that neither the outcomes of elections nor resulting public policies would change even if everyone participated? Rather than rely on surveys of nonvoters to extrapolate their hypothetical behavior, we rely on a natural experiment created by a 1980s change in the California Election Code, which allowed school districts to change their elections from off-cycle to on-cycle. Because we are able to observe very large within-district changes in voter turnout resulting from changes in election timing, we are able to isolate the effect of turnout on policy outcomes, including teacher salaries and student achievement tests. Our analysis demonstrates that changes in voter turnout do affect public policy, but modestly.



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