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CIRCLE Working Paper #73
Joining Young, Voting Young: The Effects of Youth Voluntary Associations on Early Adult Voting

Reuben J. Thomas and Daniel A. McFarland

Adolescent voluntary associations are particularly well positioned in the life course to encourage voting as youth become full citizens. Extra curriculars socialize students into voting by habituating them to civic engagement and by connecting them to politically engaged cultures. We establish this argument by testing the effects of high school extra curriculars on voting and the formation of political ideology in young adulthood, using two nationally representative longitudinal datasets and propensity score matching. We find that participation in general promotes voting, though some activities (notably, some sports) decrease it. Specific activities that encourage voting often have no political content, and their effects are not explained by the voting rates of peers in these groups. One of the biggest and most robust effects is for the performing arts: participation in high school performing arts is related to a higher rate of voting in early adulthood. Furthermore, some activities affect political ideology and party membership in adulthood, illustrating socialization into distinct political cultures. The overall pattern is that religious attendance and a few sports steer students to the conservative end of the political spectrum and into the Republican party, while academic clubs, drama clubs, and honor society steer students towards the liberal end and/or into the Democratic party. Schools can create environments that encourage extracurricular involvement through funding and policy. But they can also discourage extracurriculars through neglect. These results demonstrate that which activities thrive and which shrink will have an impact on future voting behaviors of young adults.

Extracurricular activities in U.S. high schools are sometimes dismissed as the resume-padding pursuits of the college bound, or as bribes to entice academically disengaged teenagers to go to school (Coleman 1961; Merelman 1971; Waller 1932). But voluntary organizations in high school occupy a crucial place in the life course of American citizens: they are the primary mode of community engagement just before youth enter adulthood, and just before minors become citizens with full voting rights (Ziblatt 1965). As inertia and habit can be said to characterize much of human behavior, the extracurriculars of youth can be seen as important switches that place students onto different tracks into adulthood. Those who get in the habit of participating and engaging in their high school community tend to continue those behaviors and kinds of associations into adulthood. Those that find themselves on the track of uninvolvement and detachment tend to remain detached. From this theoretical perspective, we should expect extracurriculars to play an important role in socializing young adults into active citizenship. One test of whether they actually affect youth political engagement is whether they encourage the most basic, least time-intensive, and yet far from universal form of political participation in the United States: voting.

Academic attention has been paid to civic education, extracurriculars, voter turnout, and voluntary organizations, but the connection between these is still not well understood. Some recent studies have examined the relationship between youth activities and voting (Glanville 1999; Hart, Youniss and Atkins 2007; Plutzer 2002) in the course of broader investigations, while others have more specifically focused on it (Frisco, Muller and Dodson 2004). But whether the connection between youth voluntary associations and voting is primarily a causal relationship or is mostly a matter of selfselection has not been definitively settled. We attempt here a conservative measure of this relationship that takes into account the role of self-selection and social reproduction. In addition to testing for the effect of extracurriculars in general, we look at the effects of different categories of extracurriculars and specific activities. We also look for evidence on what may lay behind this relationship, as well as any effects these activities may have on the political ideology of young adults.