Realizing a More Inclusive Electorate



THE UNITED STATES has grown steadily more diverse over the past decades in terms of the racial, ethnic, religious, and other identities of its citizens. To an extent, this diversity has been reflected in the composition the electorate—the total of eligible voters who cast ballots in an election. However, the latter has not nearly kept pace with the former.

In fact, in some election cycles, non-white race/ ethnicity groups actually lose ground as a share of the vote, even as they grow as a share of eligible voters.1 More broadly, it is the norm that in our representative democracy just three in five adult citizens participate; a year with two-thirds voter turnout is exceptional. 

We should not be content to explain either this overall non-participation or its uneven distribution across voter sub-groups as the product of purely individual choices. A wealth of scholarship suggests instead that numerous structures and processes directly contribute to low and differential turnout. This scholarship further offers insights into how to mitigate these problems to foster broader and more inclusive voter participation. 

The Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society is engaged in research and policy analysis around elections in the interest of advancing democratic principles and practices in an increasingly diverse society. We are committed to a vision of civic and political life in which all individuals and groups belong, and all participate. Our vision of belonging requires a balance: On one hand, it should never be premised on same-ness, but instead affirms a range of personal and communal identities. On the other, it strives for a broad, inclusive “we” that can push back and inoculate against the distortion of difference into othering. 2 An inclusive electorate further entails that everyone enjoy equal access to representation and opportunities to meaningfully influence democratic decision-making.

The purpose of this brief is to draw together salient lessons from research by Haas Institute faculty cluster members that can move us closer to these goals. Cutting across those lessons are common themes of identity, knowledge, and mobilization—and myriad relationships between and among them. We highlight in particular research that speaks to developments in the post-2016 socio-political context, with the brief both describing findings, and exploring them for their current implications. Because most of this research actually predates the 2016 elections, we can see that it is timely without being “timebound.” That is, its lessons are current to the present moment, but should also be kept close at hand as we advance in the enduring work of realizing a truly inclusive democracy.

  • 1. Joshua Clark, “What Didn’t Happen? Breaking Down the Results of the 2016 Presidential Election,” Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, University of California, Berkeley, November 2017.
  • 2. john a. powell and Stephen Menendian, “The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging,” Othering & Belonging 1(1): 14-39 (2016).