UNIVERSITY PARK – Along with serving on a jury, it may be the most important thing a citizen can do: voting to choose the people who run our courts, schools, towns, counties, states, and nation. So why do a third of Americans fail to vote? The answer, said Penn State political scientist Eric Plutzer, may stem from habit: If people don’t start voting as young adults, they may never get comfortable doing so.
“About 30 percent of adults are ‘habitual voters,'” Plutzer said. “They vote in presidential elections, midterm elections, school board elections. They vote even when elections are not expected to be close.”
A second group — some 35-percent — are registered to vote; these “periodic voters” generally vote in presidential elections but may not hit the polls for other elections. A third group, also about 35 percent of adults, aren’t registered to vote.
Said Plutzer, “Most young citizens aged 18 to 30 fall into the unregistered group.” Using data from several dozen nationwide voting surveys, Plutzer has tried to figure out why some young adults mature into habitual voters, others become periodic voters and some never develop the voting habit at all.
“Young Americans may relocate for college, their first job or their first mature love interest,” Plutzer noted. “When young people move into an apartment, they make sure they have electricity, phone and Internet service, and cable. Registering to vote isn’t at the top of their to-do list.
“For many, voting is an unfamiliar task: They don’t know where the polling place is, they may have no idea who represents them in the state legislature, and they’re unlikely to have strong feelings about local issues such as school taxes or zoning.” Voting for the first time may loom as an unpleasant experience. “They imagine they’ll walk out of the voting booth bewildered as to whether they’ve cast intelligent votes for county sheriff, state representative — even U.S. senator.”
Low civic involvement among younger Americans isn’t new. A presidential commission appointed by John F. Kennedy discovered that young citizens registered a disturbingly low turnout rate during the 1960 election. “That generation is now mostly retired,” noted Plutzer, “and they show a high voter turnout rate today.” In the same way, today’s civically-detached generation probably will “make the transition from abstainers to habitual voters,” Plutzer said.
His research has focused on factors that help speed up or delay that transition. The single most important factor is coming from a politically active family. Said Plutzer, “If your parents are habitual voters, the chances of you voting before age 25 are much higher.” Other factors include attending college (“College graduates are better able to absorb and understand political information, link it to their own values, and come to believe their vote can make a difference”) and living in a stimulating political environment.
Research by Penn State graduate student Julie Pacheco has found that young people in highly competitive, “battleground” communities or states tend to vote earlier in their lives. “They’re exposed to many political stimuli,” said Plutzer, “and are more likely to be personally contacted by a political organization.” Unfortunately, the number of battleground states has dwindled as our nation has become increasingly politically polarized and as partisan gerrymandering of Congressional districts has reduced the number of competitive elections for the U.S. House of Representatives. “If young adults don’t see their votes as meaningful,” Plutzer said, “they’re much less likely to vote.”
Plutzer concludes that people learn about the political world “by participating, not reading.” Simply bombarding young adults with information won’t throw the switch. Says Plutzer, “The informational approach is like telling my 6-year-old daughter that she shouldn’t play baseball until she understands the ‘infield fly rule.’ But if she goes ahead and participates in baseball, she’ll gradually learn the rules, the terminology, even the trivia.
“It’s the same with politics. Convince a young citizen to vote, and he or she will read the newspaper differently, recognize the names of people on the ballot when they’re mentioned on television or by a neighbor and eventually become highly informed. Get them to the polls once, and they will likely vote again and again.”