Probing Question: Why don't people vote?

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, says 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.

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"About 30 percent of adults are 'habitual voters,'" Plutzer says. "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 of us—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.

Says Plutzer, "Most young citizens aged eighteen to thirty 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 notes. "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," notes 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 says.

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. Says Plutzer, "If your parents are habitual voters, the chances of you voting before age twenty-five 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," says 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 says, "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 six-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."

Eric Plutzer, Ph.D., is a professor of political science in the College of the Liberal Arts. His e-mail is exp12@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 30, 2006