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Working Paper 24: Technology and Politics: Incentives for Youth Participation

by Shanto Iyengar and Simon Jackman
December 2004

“The question of potential “treatments” for the problem of politically disengaged youth has attracted considerable attention. Much of the literature focuses on civic education and efforts to make the curricula more “hands-on.” The most recent nationwide evidence suggests that civics courses do impart information and foster development of attitudes known to encourage participation. An important innovation to classroom-based civic learning extends the curriculum to the community. Some have argued that participation in non-political community service programs can be a catalyst for the development of pro-social and participant orientations. Yet, it is clear that the gains from near-universal exposure to civic education are insufficient to get young voters to the polls.”



No other group is as disengaged from elections as youth. Voter turnout in the United States trails that of other industrialized societies, and is particularly anemic among youth between the ages of 18 and 24. The under-representation of youth voters has been observed ever since eighteen year olds were enfranchised in 1972 (for evidence, see Levine and Lopez, 2002; Bennett, 1997). In the 1976 election, 18-24 year olds made up 18 percent of the eligible electorate, but only 13 percent of the voting electorate, reflecting underrepresentation by one-third. In the subsequent off-year election of 1978, under-representation of 18-24 year-olds increased to 50%. Twenty years later, youth voters numbered 13 percent of the voting age population, and a mere five percent of those who voted.

The consequences of age-related imbalances in political participation for the democratic process are obvious. Elected officials respond to the preferences of voters, not non-voters. As rational actors, candidates and parties tend to ignore the young and a vicious cycle ensues. As William Galston puts it, “Political engagement is not a sufficient condition for political effectiveness, but it is certainly necessary.” (2002a, p. 6) There are several possible reasons for political avoidance by the youngest portion of the electorate (see Bennett, 1997; Galston, 2002 for a general discussion). Elections and campaigns are thought to have little relevance for youth because they are preoccupied by short-term factors associated with the transition to adulthood, including residential mobility, the development of significant interpersonal relationships outside the family, the college experience, and the search for permanent employment. Against the backdrop of such significant personal milestones, political campaigns appear remote and inconsequential.

Rivaling life cycle factors as a cause of apathy is the political subculture of youth. In particular, youth lack the psychological affiliations so important for political engagement (see Beck and Jennings, 1982; Stoker and Jennings, 1999).

Partisanship is what bonds voters to campaigns, and the sense of party identification is more firmly entrenched among older Americans who have had multiple opportunities to cast partisan votes (Niemi and Jennings, 1991; Keith et al., 1992). The young are also less likely to have internalized relevant “civic” incentives -- beliefs about the intrinsic value of keeping abreast of public affairs (Jennings and Markus, 1984; Sax et al., 1999). Because adolescence and early adulthood are especially formative phases for the development of personal, group, and political identity (see Sears and Valentino, 1997; Niemi and Junn, 1998; Stoker and Jennings, 1999; Putnam, 2000), it is particularly important that participant attitudes and norms take root if today’s youth are not to remain tomorrow’s non-voters.

The question of potential “treatments” for the problem of politically disengaged youth has attracted considerable attention. Much of the literature focuses on civic education and efforts to make the curricula more “hands-on.” The most recent nationwide evidence suggests that civics courses do impart information and foster development of attitudes known to encourage participation (Niemi and Junn, 1998; Niemi and Campbell, 1999; cross-cultural evidence from 28 countries is summarized in Torney-Purta et al., 2001; for a critique of the mainstream civic education model, see Hibbing, 1996, Conover and Searing, 2000). An important innovation to classroom-based civic learning extends the curriculum to the community. Some have argued that participation in non-political community service programs can be a catalyst for the development of pro-social and participant orientations (Merrill, Simon and Adrian, 1994; Astin and Sax, 1998; Niemi, Hepburn and Chapman, 2000). Yet, it is clear that the gains from near-universal exposure to civic education are insufficient to get young voters to the polls.

An alternative treatment strategy - - unrelated to civic education -- is to rely on conventional voter mobilization campaigns. When “get out the vote” efforts are directed at young, first-time voters (e.g. college students), the payoffs are considerable. Using a series of field experiments, Donald Green and Alan Gerber have demonstrated that in-person and telephone-based canvassing both provide a significant impetus to youth turnout (an increase of over five percent), and at a fraction of the cost of national media campaigns (Green and Gerber, 2001; Green, Gerber, and Nickerson, 2002). However, as noted below, by providing the recipient of the contact with a salient situational rationale for voting, mobilization campaigns may actually impede the development of participant attitudes and motives. In sum, civic education contributes to the development of participant attitudes, but at least in the near-term, does not boost youth turnout.

Voter mobilization campaigns boost turnout, but leave little mark on the attitudes of young voters. Can both outcomes be achieved simultaneously? We argue that the revolution in information technology provides a significant new opportunity for connecting youth to the electoral process.

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