Are we really "rocking" the vote? Getting young people to the polls in 2004

man in light blue button down shirt
Emily Wiley

Eric Plutzer asks, how do we get young people to the polls?

"Are we really 'rocking' the vote?" Eric Plutzer asked students, faculty, and community members during the fourth conversation of Research Unplugged. The term, "rock the vote," comes directly from a MTV campaign to inspire young voters, but Plutzer questions whether such initiatives actually get young people to the polls on Election Day.

Plutzer, associate professor of political science and sociology, noted common assumptions about the voting behavior of American youth, for example the idea that young people are apathetic toward candidates and uninterested in debate issues.

"But these are false assumptions," Plutzer went on to say. His research in young peoples' transition from adolescents into participating citizens disproves an apathetic and uninterested youth population. "First, interest does not lead to participation," he said. "Rather participation promotes interest." Plutzer used a baseball analogy to justify his reasoning. He said you learn to enjoy the game by playing it, not by learning its rules. He believes the same is true for voting. "If you vote once, you will most likely become interested and do it again."

So how does America get young people to the polls on Election Day? One audience member wondered about the role of popular culture and celebrity endorsements. Plutzer suggested these have only minimal effect on actual voter turnout. "Celebrities are successful in endorsing casual purchases like clothing brands and beverage choices," he said. "But when it comes to decisions that require long term planning, such as voting, celebrities are not as effective." He said the only way popular culture can influence voter turnout is with proper follow-ups and immediate opportunities to register.

Plutzer also suggested ways that universities can increase voter participation among students. He recommended mock elections to expose students to the mechanisms and procedures of voting. "Doing leads to commitment which changes attitude," he said.

Plutzer teaches several political science courses at Penn State:

  • PLSC 001 Introduction to American Government
  • PLSC 408 Introduction to Political Research
  • PLSC 427 Political Opinion
  • PLSC 502 Statistical Methods of Political Research
  • PLSC 542 Seminar in US Political Behavior: Socialization, Opinion, and Participation
  • PLSC 552 Seminar in Comparative Political Behavior: Culture, Ideology, and Opinion

Interested individuals may also read Plutzer's article, "Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth in Young Adulthood," published in 2002 American Political Science Review.

Eric Plutzer, Ph.D., is associate professor of political science and sociology, 219 Pond Laboratories, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-6576; exp12@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 27, 2004