What Really Makes Us Vote? It May Be Our Parents
When it comes to casting our votes, we tend to assume that showing up at the polling booth is driven by the issues at stake. But there’s some evidence to indicate that voting habits are just that, habits, shaped in part by the practices and routines of our parents when we’re still too young to vote.
Now, routine is kind of a magic word to pediatricians; we believe in bedtime routines and family dinner routines, not just as a practical strategy for family life, but as a route to physical and mental health and well-being. In fact, if you look at the American Academy of Pediatrics website for parental advice, you will be told, “Children do best when routines are regular, predictable and consistent.”
But voting as a family routine? It turns out that there is evidence in the world of political science and public policy research that lifelong voting habits are formed in childhood and adolescence, and that those issues of routine and habit may be important in determining voter behavior and therefore election results.
When I was growing up, my parents took me with them to vote. I wish I could tell you exactly which presidential election it was that first time (I think I was 6, but maybe I was 10), but I was certainly taken to the polling place and into the booth. My parents would not have considered letting an election go by without voting — local, national, primary, presidential, school board, city council. I’m not sure I’m quite as good a citizen as they were, but I would certainly feel delinquent if I skipped any major election.
Research on voting patterns in the world’s advanced industrialized democracies has shown that voting habits are formed early in life; people who vote three times in a row, in the first three elections for which they are eligible, are more likely to be lifelong voters. Joshua Tucker, a professor of politics at New York University, cited work by the political scientist Mark Franklin in 22 countries around the world. “You get this situation whereby if you vote when you’re young in the first three elections, that’s likely to predict you continue voting,” he said. “If you don’t vote in the first three elections for which you’re eligible, you’re less likely to vote for the rest of your life.”
“Even one failure lowers the chance of voting later,” said Dr. Franklin, an emeritus professor at Trinity College. On the other hand, he said, “somebody who’s voted three times, they may miss a few but they come back to it. Somebody who’s only voted once may never vote again.”
This can be problematic for political scientists because it works against rationalist cost-benefit models of voter turnout, which predict that participation is driven by how much the issues matter to potential voters, or by their perception of whether they can influence the outcome of the election.
We vote because we care about the issues, but we also vote because we’re in the habit. And voting in those early elections has a strong correlation with developing a longstanding habit. Which brings me back to my early — if slightly indistinct — memory of being taken to the polling place and introduced to the idea that Election Day was a big deal, and that voting was an important ritual and a badge of adulthood.
“Parents have a tremendous influence on the interest people have in politics, the values they bring to politics, and the habits they have with regard to citizenship,” said Bruce E. Cain, a professor of political science at Stanford.
It’s about seeing your parents vote, as you’re growing up, and it’s also about political discussions in the home, so those family dinner routines that pediatricians like to recommend may contribute as well. And it’s even about participating in political activities — rallies, protests, student government elections — as part of growing up.
“Voting behavior is very much a habit,” said Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “If you’ve had the behavior modeled in your home by your parents consistently voting, by political discussion, sometimes by participation, you start a habit formation and then when you become a little older you’ll feel it’s your duty and responsibility to register and vote.” Civics courses are much less effective in transmitting that sense of duty and responsibility, he said.
Those first elections for which they’re eligible often fall just as children leave home, and for many young people, registration can loom as something of an obstacle, as their addresses shift and change; registering to vote when you change your address may be another habit which is best acquired young. And life cycle factors come into play as well, whether it’s the influence of peers on a college campus or the evolving impacts of maturity, marriage, parenthood and community involvement.
“Voting is very much about a sense of duty and responsibility,” Dr. Brady said. “If your parents have implanted in your mind that there’s a duty and responsibility, you’re much more likely to vote.”
Parents who talk politics and political participation are also more likely to transmit their own partisan feelings and political party identification to their children.
“The most important thing you can say to parents is take your kids to the polling place the same way you would take them to church and talk about it on the way, about how you decide how to vote,” Dr. Franklin said.
“The big and compelling need we have in this country is for people to look at both sides of an issue and distinguish between facts and rumors and pseudo-facts,” Dr. Cain said.
And having looked at the issues, you need to vote. And the decision to vote may be less about how you feel about any given issue, or even about any given election, and more about those “regular, predictable and consistent” habits that help you grow up in so many ways.
There is no other sense, perhaps, in which those adjectives could be applied to this election season, but I feel sure my parents would be proud to know that on Election Day, my children, their grandchildren, will three for three be wearing “I voted” stickers.