Educational Attainment and Social Norms of Voting

Eric R. Hansen, Loyola University Chicago

Andrew Tyner, Center for Open Science

Why are more educated Americans more likely to vote? It seems like a question that political scientists would know the answer to, but definitive answers to this question are surprisingly hard to come by. In this article, we focus on one possible link between education and voting. We argue that education normalizes voting behavior. In other words, we think that people who attend school for longer are more likely to vote because they think that voting is “the right thing to do” or that it’s a person’s “civic duty.”

We offer three supporting pieces of evidence. First, we use data from the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) and the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) to show that a sense of civic duty mediates the effect of education on validated voter turnout. That is, we show that at least a small part (we estimate about 14%) of the reason that educated people vote more often is because they feel socially obligated to.

Next, we study a behavior that public opinion researchers refer to as “overreporting.” It’s common for 90% or more of respondents in nationally representative surveys to tell researchers that they voted in the last presidential election. But some of those respondents must be mistaken, if not outright lying, since actual voter turnout has hovered around 60% in presidential elections for the last century. If more educated people feel like voting is “the right thing to do,” then they should also be more likely to misreport voting to researchers when their behavior doesn’t live up to their own expectations. Using validated voter turnout data from ANES and CCES, we show that college-educated Americans are significantly more likely than others to tell researchers they voted in the last election when they didn’t vote in reality.

Finally, we present the results of a survey experiment that asked respondents to play a game of “Would You Rather?” In a control condition, we asked respondents how likely they were to vote in 2018. In a treatment condition, we asked respondents how likely they were to vote if they had to choose between voting and accepting a $500 cash prize. Unsurprisingly, respondents offered a chance at $500 were much less likely to choose voting. However, college-educated respondents were less likely than others to choose the money over voting, presumably because the respondents with more education thought that choosing the money wouldn’t be “the right thing to do.” (Notably, it wasn’t because the people with less education needed the money more—high-income people, regardless of education, were more likely than low-income people to choose the money over voting.)

One limitation of our study is that we aren’t able to show that education itself normalizes voting. It’s possible that people who think voting is a civic duty also happen to be more likely to decide to spend more years in school. However, we contribute evidence suggesting that the way Americans see the social norms around voting differ by their level of education.

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