Category Archives: youth engagement

2010 voter turnout up, but not for youth and blacks (UPDATED)

Flickr photo by Dean Terry

Preliminary evidence suggests that voting turnout among all Americans was up in the November 2010 election.  Compared with the last non-presidential election (2006), both voting turnout experts (Curtis Gans and Michael McDonald) agree that turnout among eligible voters rose 1.1-1.2 percentage points (based on preliminary estimates that will obviously change as all ballots are counted and certified). Regardless of whether one likes the outcome in 2010, it is civic good news that more Americans got involved.

Preliminary evidence suggests electoral turnout rose in at least nine states, and significantly in Texas, Florida and Minnesota.  Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other states, seems to have experienced a turnout decline.  [Curtis Gans projects voting turnout at 42 percent of registered voters; Michael McDonald believes that 41.5% of voting-eligible Americans turned out to vote.]  Note: McDonald has now lowered his turnout estimate 1.2 percentage points to 40.3% (VEP Highest Office Turnout, as of 11/8/10).

But the bad news is what voices are being heard or not heard. Voting turnout rates were down among young voters (18-29) and blacks made up a lower percentage of voters in 2010 than in 2008 when Obama’s candidacy excited African-Americans to vote.  For example, blacks made up 12% of voters in 2008 and appeared to make up just 10% of voters in 2010 (based on exit polls).  This drop, if it holds up in more authoritative numbers like the Current Population Survey would  negate this encouraging finding reported in 2008 that the black-white voting gap had disappeared.    [Exit polls suggest that Hispanics maintained their share of the electorate, rising from 7% in 2008 to 8% in 2010, although one would have to compare this rise against their expanding voting-eligible numbers to truly understand whether their political voice was diluted, and if so, how much.]  It wasn’t a simple story of the richest folks’ accounting for more of the votes, since those earning $100,000 or more accounted for 26% of the votes in both 2008 and 2010, but due to the elimination of restrictions on corporate campaign contributions in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United case, the wealthy disproportionately had chances to influence election outcomes even before voters got to their polling places.

[For information on 2008 turnout, click here.]

Impact of civics education on voting

Flickr photo by Eric Langhorst

Jennifer Bachner (Harvard Government department PhD student) has a recent paper From Classroom to Voting Booth: The Effect of High School Civic Education on Turnout on the impact of civics education on voting.  Moreover, the paper suggests that civics education may help to level the political playing field since the gains in voting are greatest among those who have not been socialized by their families to vote.  33 States now require such civics classes (American Government/Civics) and many more school districts offer such classes.   Almost 80% of US high school graduates have taken a minimum of 0.5 credits in such classes, up from 62% in 1982.

Her research uses the NELS data (National Educational Longitudinal Surveys) of 1998 and 2002 and tracks voting in the national 1992-2006 elections.  She controls for baseline interest in politics and involvement in extra-curriculars, parents’ level of political socialization of their child (discussion of politics and whether they subscribe to a newpaper), the quality of the school in which the child attends, and the child’s race and gender, and parents’ native language and level of education.

Abstract follows:

A healthy democracy requires a citizenry that participates in political life. While interventions such as removing barriers to registration and mobilizing partisans have received frequent scholarly attention, formal civic education has been largely ignored.  Using longitudinal data and a matching analysis, this paper shows that students who complete a year of coursework in American Government/Civics are 3-6 percentage points more likely to vote in an election following high school than those without exposure to civic education.  Further, this effect is magnified among students whose parents are not highly politicized.  Among students who report not discussing politics with their parents, additional coursework is associated with a 7-11 percentage point increase in the probability of voting.  This result suggests that civic education compensates for a relative lack of political socialization at home, and thereby enhances participatory equality.

Note: She finds consistent results, regardless of whether she uses matched or unmatched data;  she uses matching to ensure that those who get the civics classes and those who don’t look as similar as possible to each other on their propensity to get involved politically.