Educational Attainment and Social Norms of Voting

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Authors Eric R. Hansen
Journal/Conference Name POLITICAL BEHAVIOR
Paper Category
Paper Abstract Why do highly educated Americans vote at higher rates than less educated Americans? Prominent theories attribute the education’s effect to human capital. However, human capital theories tend to neglect individuals’ motivations to vote. We test a theory of differential norms as an alternative explanation. Many Americans vote out of a sense of civic duty—in other words, to adhere to social norms of voting. However, those norms are not universal, nor do they arise as a matter of course. Rather, we argue that norms of voting are inculcated in educational institutions and reinforced to differing extents within social networks segregated by levels of educational attainment. Consequently, greater educational attainment should both increase exposure to voting norms and make citizens more likely to have internalized them after graduation. As a test of the theory, we conduct three studies demonstrating differences in internalization of voting norms across levels of education. In two observational studies relying on the 2016 ANES and CCES, we show that highly educated people are more likely to view voting as a civic duty, that civic duty partially mediates the effect of education on validated voting, and that the likelihood of overreporting increases with educational attainment. In a third study featuring a survey experiment, we show that educated respondents are less likely to choose receiving a hypothetical financial incentive than to express a willingness to vote. The results suggest that more attention should be given to citizens’ motivations for voting, including how motivations such as compliance with social norms might vary across subgroups in the population. Further, our analysis highlights the importance of understanding how social norms about voting arise in the first place. By better understanding citizens’ motivations to vote, activists interested in increasing turnout can design targeted interventions that help reduce disparities in participation.
Date of publication 2018
Code Programming Language R
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