Researchers examine influence of wealthy, poor on lawmakers

A new study challenges the view that the voices of the wealthy consistently drown out those of the poor. Instead, researchers say, Democratic elected officials side more with the views of low-income constituents while Republican lawmakers side more with their wealthier constituents. Above, shoppers outside the Oscar de la Renta store in Las Vegas.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

WASHINGTON -- An often-heard criticism of American politics is that lawmakers listen only to the views of their wealthy constituents, not to the poor.

The recent vote in Congress to exempt the air traffic control system from across-the-board budget cuts -- a move that primarily benefited fliers, who tend to be more affluent than the average American -- provided a case in point.

But was that vote typical of the system overall or a special case? New research that directly compares lawmakers’ votes with the positions taken by their constituents challenges the view that the voices of the wealthy consistently drown out those of the poor.


“Contrary to popular view, we do not find that less income means less representation,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers, from Georgia State University, the University of Connecticut and Yale, found that Democratic elected officials sided more with the views of low-income constituents while Republican lawmakers sided more with their wealthier constituents.

Overall, however, income divides were greatly overshadowed by partisan ones, the study found. In liberal districts, voters, regardless of their incomes, generally took the liberal side of most issues. Voters in conservative districts mostly took the conservative side, again regardless of income.

The researchers drew their findings from California, where legislators often act on issues that also go before voters as ballot initiatives. That allows a direct comparison of how a legislator voted with how his or her constituents voted on the same issue. The researchers looked at 77 issues that came before both voters and the Legislature, covering a wide range of economic and social issues.

Comparing the votes showed that about 75% of the time, voters were united across income lines. And, as one would expect, legislators agreed with the positions of the average voter in their districts.

But when low-income and high-income voters disagreed, Democrats were more likely to side with the average low-income voter in their districts. Conversely, Republicans were more likely to reflect the preferences of their high-income constituents. In both cases, the differences were not huge, but were consistent and big enough to matter.

In California, where Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans, that meant the Legislature as a whole represented the views of low-income voters more often than those of upper-income voters. That was true even though high-income people are considerably more likely to vote, participate in campaigns and make campaign donations than are people with low incomes.

One important caveat is that the study only looked at issues that became ballot measures. That’s important because although ballot measures cover a lot of issues -- the minimum wage, taxes and healthcare were all included -- they also tend to be broad-ranging policy questions, not individual items such as extra money for air traffic control. It’s possible that lawmakers could side with low-income voters on big issues, but still slip in a few extra benefits for their wealthier constituents on small, but potentially lucrative, matters such as tax deductions.

“The preferences of high-income voters may be more influential in determining the legislative agenda,” the researchers noted. “Or the legislator may provide higher-income voters more political pork, public goods or constituent services.”

The study did reveal another distinctive pattern -- Democratic and Republican legislators diverged from each other more than their constituents did. In other words, lawmakers are more polarized than the voters. Democratic legislators were generally more liberal than their constituents and Republican lawmakers more conservative. A similar pattern exists at the national level, reflecting an electoral system that tends to push lawmakers away from the center.

Indeed, the researchers suggest that partisanship tends to explain a great deal of the pattern they found -- low-income voters in Democratic districts and upper-income voters in Republican districts tend to be the most reliable partisans in their areas. So lawmakers are likely to pay special attention to upper-income views, the researchers theorize. That bias toward most reliably partisan voters could begin to change now that California has done away with partisan primaries, they noted.

The findings suggest that the most disenfranchised voters aren’t the poor, but what the researchers called the “politically disadvantaged” -- the voters unlucky enough to be represented by a lawmakers whose political party is opposite from their own.