Generational Differences in Voter Participation
Effect of Generational Cohort on Voter TurnoutPhyllis L. Gillis
Antelope Valley College
Word Count: 3043
Generational Differences in Voter Participation
Effect of Generational Cohort on Voter Turnout
During the twentieth century numerous studies were conducted to try to explain and develop strategies to reverse the continuing overall downward trend in voter participation, specifically the seemingly disproportional voter turnout rates across the generations, in particular the alarming disenfranchisement of the youth 3. “The last three decades of the twentieth century witnessed an accelerating trend toward more and more voter contact but fewer and fewer party workers. By 1996 this ratio was 2.5 times greater than the equivalent figure in 1968” (Goldstein 6). This literature review encapsulates studies with a wide range of disparate variables, however there are a few key variables that most studies utilize in one descriptive or another. These standard or basic units of categorization, that can be clearly labeled and identified, include Age, Gender 1, Ethnicity 2 and party affiliation. While these three variables are easily identified and separated on a per individual and even a generational approach there is the increasing “recognition that time periods in a repeated cross-sectional survey design are not fully nested within cohorts and cohorts are not fully nested within time periods” that must be taken into account. In order to adjust for this discrepancy “one obtains a cross-classified structure with individuals nested within cells defined by birth cohorts and time periods” and contrast those findings with similarly adapted previous longitudinal studies. (Frenk 38)
Seeking to Standardize Disparate Studies Longitudinally
The disparities previously identified in earlier studies, especially in determining consistencies across voter cohorts has been partially alleviated with the instituting of HAPC models. “HAPC models provides a useful apparatus for modeling and estimating distinct age, period, and cohort effects in repeated cross-sectional survey.” (Frenk 5) The HAPC “hierarchical age-period-cohort” model is used as a basic framework in a number of studies targeting the 40 year voter decline most studied in the latter half of the 20th century. (Frenk, 2) Among the few that are cross represented are education levels of both the voter and the parent or cohort equivalent and the socio-economic security level of the different generational cohorts. While many hypotheses were composed and tested there is no conclusive data that would point to one specific cause for the decline in voter participation since the 1960’s. Why the concern over the categorization of specific variables such as gender and ethnicity? To put it simply we pride ourselves on our perception of equal representation or one person one vote. “This system has two implications for the one person, one vote system. First, the 49% of votes for the loser does not count toward their national total. Second, every winner’s additional vote, above 50%, does not count. This system sharply weakens the incentives for national political campaigns to contest nonswing states. This system can also lead to counterintuitive and contentious outcomes in which the winner of the Electoral College vote is not the winner of the popular vote—as in the case of the 2016 Trump-Clinton election and four other presidential
elections.” (Romero 42)
Empirical Data Superior to Self-Reported Values
One of the most glaring discrepancies identified is the disparity between the total votes reportedly cast as counted through self-reporting of and the actual number of votes cast in an election, especially in presidential races. “Some scholars have interpreted “validated” turnout estimates as more accurate than respondent self-reports because “validated” rates tend to be lower than aggregate self-reported rates and tend to be closer to government-reported rates. (Berent 597) To couch it in layman’s terms; people Lie. They may lie unwittingly or unknowingly, to avoid further discussion, minimize embarrassment, or any other number of reasons, but they do lie. We are however, left with the fact that “in the United States, it is not uncommon for 70 to 90 percent of respondents in nationally representative sample surveys to report having voted in an election in which the actual turnout rate was 50 percent or lower” (Berent 598) These inaccuracies in reporting are almost always in the affirmative rather than the negative in regard to participating in the political process. Consequently, when analyzing results from earlier studies one must take this phenomenon into account when reviewing unusual fluctuations in cohort patterns. We must be cognizant “that the impact of a contact fluctuates somewhat more than in presidential years, but it remains difficult to find a trend in the impact or effectiveness of contacts that could explain the turnout decline. That is confirmed by a chi-square test in which we fail to reject the null hypothesis” (Goldstein 13) Even with this adjustment their remains the continuing trend on voter disenfranchisement across the board and specifically among the youth. One study “confirms the importance of age as a factor in explaining voter turnout and also clarifies the effects of cohort and period on voter turnout…We find only modest evidence that birth cohorts affect voter turnout. Individual cohorts showed little variation, with only a single cohort (1955–1959) reaching statistical significance”(Frenk 38). It is of note that the cohort with the greatest discrepancy is also the cohort most opposed to global policing by American forces.
Higher Education and Political Participation Rates
Previous studies have linked voter participation to education level. It has been theorized that the higher the education level the more likely the individual would be an active participant in the political process as a whole and a voter in particular. One study hypothesized that the higher education levels being obtained by the newer generations would result in an increase in young voter turnout began by analyzing data from the presidential elections held since 1980 and contrasting those data with data previously collected for elections occurring after WWII. Part of the study included “models using data on verbal test scores and voter turnout in U.S. presidential elections” which compared test score results to voter participation rates to determine if there is indeed a direct link between the two. (Frenk, 2) Although the study did show a clear distinction in previous generations between education level and voter participation it also uncovered the disparity in the studies themselves. Past Political Analyst studies looked purely at the academic achievement level of the cohort without considering the generational experiences of the different cohorts. “The overall increase in the level of education concluded in a zero-sum effect. Simply put, the high school degree has had the same effect in past as a college diploma does today. Scholars of Political Science have also attached importance to the cohort effect. Thus the younger electorate, according to authorities, has shown itself to be more apolitical” (Akhmetkarimov 117). In contrast, “Social scientists often study time-specific phenomena for which there may be age, period, and/or cohort effects”. (Frenk, 3) This is essential as “political reproduction and social reproduction are inextricably linked: parental socioeconomic disadvantage translates into political disadvantage. When it comes to transmitting political inequality, the key aspect of socioeconomic status (SES) is seen to be parental education.” (Gidengil 373-374). “Within the study of U.S. elections, variation in voter turnout rates is widely associated with formal education, income, gender race, and age. Yet, geography matters as well.” (Romero 40) “In spite of the civic energy surrounding the lowering of the voting age to 18, since then young adults have voted at dramatically lower rates than other citizens. However, considering the consistency and magnitude of this disparate participation, there is a relatively small amount of research attention devoted to it compared with examinations of general turnout rates.” (Romero 40)
The Fear Factor
Increased life stability appears to be a common link among those who consistently vote. “Today we are face to face with a participation rate that has fallen nearly one-quarter of its initial value since 1960” (Akhmetkarimov 111) One of the mitigating factors studies have identified is that the greater level of life security in a cohort group may translate into a greater level of political participation for that cohort as a whole. It is of note that “particularly lacking within the American political behavior literature is an in-depth theoretical account and empirical analysis of the individual-level factors that create the impetus for citizens to engage in this novel form of extra-electoral political participation. The scant quantitative research within the United States that does exist most often includes only brief or indirect mention of political consumerism…, confines the scope of investigation strictly to environmental or “green” buying habits, …or focuses on the role of media consumption and communication practices at the expense of a more concentrated motivational account rooted in an analysis of individual-level factors” (Newman 806) Not enough studies have been conducted to “test the notion that the overall level of life satisfaction affects the individual’s decision whether or not to participate in elections” (Akhmetkarimov 111). Studies have shown “the life-satisfaction of people and the origins of the ‘added’ population were shown to have had no real effect on turnout. ‘Economic variables’ failed to explain the phenomenon as well. Crime rates and the assistance for needy families, however found some empirical support. People become more dissociable as they get frightened; thus they participate less” (Akhmetkarimov 112)
Encouraging Political Reproduction
There is one ongoing trend contributing to the overall decline in voter participation and that is the increasing disenfranchisement of the young voter. Much of the data for this stems from the “American National Election Studies technical report entitled “The Quality of Government Records and Over-Estimation of Registration and Turnout in Surveys: Lessons from the 2008 ANES Panel Study’s Registration and Turnout Validation Exercises” (Hill 61) This trend is easily identified by the generally “low voter turnout among college students” (Hill 61) This epidemic of apathy among the youth has led to various campaigns to increase political participation through overt peer pressure and celebrity influence. These campaigns hope to not only encourage participation in current election cycles but to also foster and encourage the growth of political reproduction. “Just as social reproduction refers to the processes that transmit social and economic inequality from one generation to the next, political reproduction denotes the processes underpinning the intergenerational transmission of political inequality. ” (Gidengil 373) Studies have shown that “social learning perspective that has dominated studies of political socialization. Social learning theory highlights the role of observational learning and the modeling of behavior on the parental example “(Gidengil 374). This supports the theory that political reproduction is tied not only to cohorts but to familial influences. Campaigns such as the Vote have had nominal success 3. Grassroots campaigns throughs social media and the entertainment industry have proved effective in spreading the word about the need to vote but has had seemingly little effect on transferring that newly obtained information into actual votes. In fact, the few studies dealing with the last three presidential elections 3 show “a non-significant difference in turnout between those students contacted and those not contacted. The findings suggest that although it is generally difficult to mobilize U.S. citizens, it may be especially difficult to mobilize U.S. college students.” (Hill 61) The “political disengagement among young Americans is all the more troublesome given that they are on average better educated than their generational predecessors. Formal education correlates strongly with political engagement in many studies” (Hill 64) The studies show that “the core of our theoretical analysis involves locating political consumerism relative to voting and protest based upon three theoretical dimensions of participatory political behavior: (1) whether participation is institutionalized or noninstitutional, (2) whether participation is individualized or group based, and (3) the level of civic initiative required by the citizen to engage in an act of participation.” (Newman 807) Therefore we can surmise that increased political consumerism may translate into increased political reproduction rates. “The National Election Survey has served as a basic source for hundreds of works since 1952. Today, analyzing public opinion in the tradition of a behavioral approach remains the main method of explaining voter behavior” (Akhmetkarimov 114) Many of the studies discussed herein have utilized vast amounts of research data for
National Voter Turnout, which is a Dependent Variable, from the “Congressional Research Service reports, Election Data Services Inc., and State Election Offices. As to independent variables, the happiness index is drawn from the World Database of Happiness. The U.S. Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics are the sources used for an unemployment index between 1960 and 2000. The source for nominal and real minimum wage rates is the U.S. Department of Labor. HHS Administration for Children and Families provided additional data with respect to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The Disaster Center contributed data for U.S. crime rates.” (Akhmetkarimov 115) These data approached holistically gives an indicator of the intangible variable of Life Satisfaction. The higher the level of Life Satisfaction the more likely one is to participate in the political process “because of its direct correlation to political involvement, strong partisanship is associated with high voter turnout.” (Akhmetkarimov 116) There is hope on the horizon however as studies seek to “identify and evaluate three possible ways in which mobilization might have affected levels of turnout over time: (a) aggregate rates of mobilization may have declined, (b) the effectiveness of mobilization contacts may have declined, and (c) the targeting of mobilization may have changed. The first two theories have been well articulated in the literature; the third has not.” (Goldstein 6) Summary
The studies incorporated herein cover a wide range of variables that include discrete variables such as age, race, and gender as well as intangible variables such as life satisfaction and perceived levels of benefits to account for the continuing phenomenon of declining voter participation in America while overall voter participation appears to be on the upswing globally.
The studies have shown that we must involve the youth and build political reproduction among the current voting population and those who will be of voting age in the next election cycle. One approach is to emphasize the benefits attached to participating in the electoral process “the hypotheses that in the context of large electorates the cost of voting will outweigh the expected gains of the act (i.e. a vote will be pivotal), and that free-riding is encouraged by the fact that both voters and non-voters will inevitably enjoy or suffer from the public goods emanating from elections” (Borja 20). Several of the studies also looked at the influence of social media and its effects in mobilizing youth to vote. One such study found that “using public voting records to measure actual voting, the researchers show that the information-only group was no more likely to vote than the control group, but the social message group with friend photos was 0.39% more likely to vote than the control group. Their study demonstrates one mechanism by which the nature of people’s experience online, in this case the social context of political messages, can affect participation in ways that are not captured by measures of how often they use the Internet” (Hill 72-73). Studies also report that “62% of the total turnout decline between 1960 and 1984 was due to declines in partisanship, efficacy, and an increasing reliance on newspapers for election information” (Akhmetkarimov 116) This clearly demonstrates that using media profiles to generate a perception of peer support can encourage the user to vote where they might not have otherwise. One avenue is to a Universal voting system of some type. “Universal vote by mail is the most effective way to boost turnout among young and minority voters ” (Keisling 41) The results from the 2016 election will give us a clearer picture of how effective campaigns such as Rock the Vote have been in creating political reproduction. What is known is that in the “2016 presidential year, sixty-four million registered voters didn’t show up” (Keisling 41). If we are to progress as a sustainable democratic republic we must find a way to re-enfranchise the disenfranchised voter.
1 For the purpose of this literature review the term Gender will be used to, include the category
of sex as earlier studies did not separate gender identity from sex assigned at birth.
2 For the purpose of this literature review the term Ethnicity will be used to include Race as
prior studies did not differentiate between the two.
3 These studies do not include in any substantive form the results of generational cohort voting
during the 2016 Presidential election. However, in a limited cursory review of current
ongoing data collection and personal observation, it would appear that the youth of America
has awoken out of their stupor of political abstinence and are starting to pay attention at levels
far beyond those demonstrated in the latter half of the 20th century.
Akhmetkarimov, B. (2008). Revisiting the Profile of the American Voter in the Context of Declining Turnout. Alternatives: Turkish Journal Of International Relations, 7(2/3), 111-133
Berent, M. K., Krosnick, J. A., & Lupia, A. (2016). Measuring Voter Registration and Turnout in Surveys. Public Opinion Quarterly, 80(3), 597-621. doi:10.1093/poq/nfw021
Borja, A. A. (2017). ‘Tis but a Habit in an Unconsolidated Democracy: Habitual Voting, Political Alienation and Spectatorship. Theoria: A Journal Of Social & Political Theory, 64(150), 19-40. doi:10.3167/th.2017.6415002
Frenk, S. M., Yang, Y. C., & Land, K. C. (2013). Assessing the Significance of Cohort and Period Effects in Hierarchical Age-Period-Cohort Models: Applications to Verbal Test Scores and Voter Turnout in U.S. Presidential Elections. Social Forces, 92(1), 221-248.
Gidengil, E., Wass, H., & Valaste, M. (2016). Political Socialization and Voting. Political Research Quarterly, 69(2), 373-383. doi:10.1177/1065912916640900
Goldstein, K. M., & Ridout, T. N. (2002). The Politics of Participation: Mobilization and Turnout over Time. Political Behavior, 24(1), 3-29.
Hill, D., & Lachelier, P. (2014). Can Face-to-Face Mobilization Boost Student Voter Turnout? Results of a Campus Field Experiment. Journal Of Higher Education Outreach & Engagement, 18(1), 61-87.
Keisling, P. (2017). How to Bring Home Democratic Voters. Washington Monthly, 49(1/2), 7-1.
Newman, B. J., & Bartels, B. L. (2011). Politics at the Checkout Line: Explaining Political Consumerism in the United States. Political Research Quarterly, 64(4), 803-817. doi:10.1177/1065912910379232
Romero, M., & Fox, J. (2016). Uneven Landscape: Mapping Underrepresentation of Young Adults in California’s Electorate. National Civic Review, 105(4), 40-51. doi:10.1002/ncr.21300