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Educational Attainment and Social Norms of Voting

Abstract

Why does the likelihood of voting increase with education in the US? Prominent theories attribute education’s effect to human capital, which affords individuals resources needed to participate, but neglect social motivations. We test a theory of internalized social norms as another contributing factor, providing evidence in three studies. First, we show that highly educated people are more likely to view voting as a civic duty, and that civic duty partially mediates the effect of education on voting. Second, we show education is associated with a higher likelihood of overreporting voting in the 2016 election. Third, we show that educated respondents are more likely to withstand stimuli incentivizing them to report they will not vote in an upcoming election. The results imply that voting norms vary by education, and invite more attention to social explanations for socioeconomic disparities in turnout.

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Fig. 1

Source 2016 American National Election Study

Fig. 2

Source 2016 American National Election Study

Fig. 3
Fig. 4

Notes

  1. 1.

    Replication data and code is available at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/LJN4BO.

  2. 2.

    Compare, for instance, to a 2018 Pew Research Center finding that 91% of respondents very much agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement that voting is important to being a good citizen. Pew Research Center. “The Public, the Political System and American Democracy.” Accessed online 29 January 2019 at http://www.people-press.org/2018/04/26/the-public-the-political-system-and-american-democracy/.

  3. 3.

    Age is a respondent’s self-reported age in years, controlling for shifting norms of political involvement over time in the US. The squared term for age is also included in the model. Female is a binary variable indicating a respondent’s sex. White, Black, and Hispanic are binary variables indicating the race/ethnicity by which a respondent self-identifies (with all others serving as the reference group). Foreign Born is a binary variable with a value of 1 indicating the respondent was born outside the US, controlling for differences in political norms across cultures. Religious Attendance is an ordinal variable measuring the frequency of a respondent’s participation in religious services, controlling for norms of social obligation instilled through religious institutions rather than schools. PID Strength is a folded 7-point party identification scale. A value of 0 indicates true independents, 1 indicates party-leaning independents, 2 indicates weak partisans, and 3 indicates strong partisans. Interest measures the respondent’s self-reported interest in politics, ranging from a value of 0 (not at all interested) to 3 (very interested).

  4. 4.

    A remaining concern is that citizens who attend college differ fundamentally from those who do not in ways that are not captured by the controls in the previous footnote. If these underlying characteristics also increase the likelihood of seeing voting as a civic duty, they represent another potential confound. In Table A1 of the online appendix, we replicate the models with additional controls for five personality traits that might drive both college attendance and the civic duty norm: dependability, extraversion, openness to new experiences, carelessness (reverse-coded), and being conventional. The effects for education in both models are unaffected with these additional controls.

  5. 5.

    We note that we match only on observables, leaving open the possibility of confounding through unobserved variables.

  6. 6.

    The 14% is calculated from dividing the ACME by the total effect, which is the sum of the ACME and the ADE.

  7. 7.

    However, Prior (2010) suggests that interest forms in childhood and adolescence and demonstrates that it is more or less stable over one’s adulthood.

  8. 8.

    Specifically, we use votes that were validated through clerical review.

  9. 9.

    The results of logistic regression models using a dummy variable for college education, also reported in Table 2, point to a similar conclusion.

  10. 10.

    The association between normative feelings about voting and educational attainment may help to explain trouble that pollsters have reaching low-education voters. See, for instance, Pew Research Center, “Why 2016 Election Polls Missed Their Mark.” Accessed online 21 June 2019 at https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/why-2016-election-polls-missed-their-mark/.

  11. 11.

    An intention to vote could be revealed by an individual overreporting as well. However, in contrast with overreporting, respondents reporting their intentions have no true past behavior on which to base their response.

  12. 12.

    We investigate whether the experimental results are robust to using different measures of educational attainment. Results are presented in Table A5 in the Appendix. The results hold when education is measured using an ordinal variable as in Fig. 1 above, as indicated by the positive and significant coefficient estimate for the Incentive × Education variable in column 1. However, the results do not hold when the educational cutpoint is placed at Some College (column 2) or at Post-Graduate Degree (column 3). Together these tests suggest that while normative pressure increases with education, a four-year college degree seems to serve as a crucial threshold.

  13. 13.

    Household income was measured categorically, and the median respondent fell in the range of $40,000–$49,000 a year. The median is admittedly an arbitrary cutpoint for distinguishing between high- and low-income respondents. In Table A6 of the online appendix, we show the results are robust to choices of different arbitrary cutpoints of income.

  14. 14.

    Highly educated respondents may also disproportionately possess other resources like time or civic skills, not just income. While we do not have the data to rule out these other resources as driving the relationship observed above, the income finding weakens suspicions that the results are necessarily explained by resources.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank Tom Carsey, Jacqueline Chattopadhyay, Patrick Flavin, Elizabeth Rigby, Chris Skovron, workshop participants at UNC-Chapel Hill, and several anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. The authors remain responsible for any errors. Previous versions of this paper were presented at the 2018 meetings of the Southern Political Science Association and American Political Science Association. The survey experiment described herein was reviewed by the Loyola University Chicago Institutional Review Board (#2494).

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Hansen, E.R., Tyner, A. Educational Attainment and Social Norms of Voting. Polit Behav 43, 711–735 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09571-8

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Keywords

  • Voting
  • Education
  • Civic duty
  • Norms