Voting is the foundational act of democracy. While thousands of studies have treated voting as a dependent variable, comparatively little research has studied voting as an independent variable. Here we flip the causal arrow and explore the effect of exogenous voting shocks on citizens’ broader attitudes and behaviors. To do so, we first use two waves from a uniquely large survey of young people in the United States, pairing this with a regression discontinuity design. We augment these results with a new meta-analysis of all causally-identified studies exploring whether voting is transformative. We find that—despite voting at much higher rates—individuals induced to vote, regardless of the mode used to mobilize, are (precisely) no different from all-else-equal individuals that are not. Our results illuminate the (non)consequences of a vitally important—and widely studied—political behavior and speak to the broader importance of voting as an object of study.
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The ACT data is proprietary as it contains sensitive school records. In order to have access to this dataset, we have signed a data use agreement that does not allow us to share the data. Users interested in obtaining access to the data should contact Raeal Moore (firstname.lastname@example.org) at the ACT. The code for the ACT analyses and the data and code for the meta-analysis, however, are posted on the Harvard Dataverse: https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataset.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.7910/DVN/JT5GGA. This project was marked as exempt by Duke IRB.
We borrow this language from Druckman et al. (2011, p. 8), who defines a downstream effect as “subsequent outcomes that are set in motion by the original experimental intervention.”
As a complement to their work, in Online Appendix (see Section VII) we outline the assumptions one needs to make to have our estimates apply to the effect of voting itself on attitudes and behaviors.
To be precise, the exogenous variation we use from the United States comes from (age-based) cutoffs in one’s eligibility to vote. We sometimes refer to this treatment as a “voting experience” as it is, in fact, a treatment administering the opportunity for individuals to experience voting.
We replicate this pattern in Fig. A1 in Online Appendix.
Previous work on the TVH by Holbein and Rangel (2020) has argued that “short-term fluctuations that ultimately fade away are, in our view, not transformative. If there were to be some long-lasting, durable, persistent effect on civic attitudes and behaviors, we would expect it to last until our downstream measures, like the effects of voting in one election on voting in elections many years later.” In this paper, we explore effects across a range of timelines and find systematic nulls.
In the U.S., people become eligible to voluntary vote in federal elections on their 18th birthday.
See “The ACT Technical Manual”, Fall 2019, V3.
Political interest was measured using standard questions in this literature—how much respondents reported following the presidential election, how much thought they gave to the election, and how often they discussed politics at home, in school, and with friends. In 2018, an additional item was added that asked “Some people don’t pay much attention to political campaigns. How about you?”
We readily admit that the news sources outcome probably has the weakest theoretical connection to voting experiences. We include it for the sake of transparency in our results. Simply omitting it, however, does not change our substantive conclusion—that voting experiences have null effects.
The survey also included questions about individuals’ concerns over specific policy issues. We include the results for these in the Online Appendix. We do so in order to be transparent, but to also reflect the fact that the theoretical connection between voting experiences and these is weaker.
Some may be concerned that focusing on a slightly more educated sample of young people, on average, means that we would have ceiling effects in our outcomes of interest. However, this is not the case. Among our sample, only 81% (roughly equivalent to a B- in letter grade terms) knew the correct answer to our political knowledge question. And our sample falls right near the middle of our political interest scale (scoring a 1.8 on the 1–3 scale). Both numbers are close to averages from nationally representative samples of 18-year-olds (67% for knowledge and 1.7 for interest).
Holbein and Rangel (2020) discuss this issue thoroughly. Suffice it to say here, voting eligibility cutoffs are, in some respects, better situated to estimate the effects of voting on downstream outcomes. In comparison, if we were using a get-out-the-vote intervention that provided a large amount of information to voters as a means of increasing their turnout, we might attribute changes in downstream attitudes and behaviors not to the act of voting, but rather to the intervention itself.
We focus on the reduced-form effects (i.e. the ITT), but provide IV estimates for the effect of voting on our downstream outcomes in the Online Appendix (see Fig. A5).
Astute readers will note that the Bonferroni and Sidak corrections could be seen as overly conservative approaches to test the merits of the TVH because they favor the null hypothesis. Hence, we draw most of our attention to the unadjusted p-values.
For published work, we looked in the prominent outlets that publish political behavior research, such as the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, Quarterly Journal of Political Science, British Journal of Political Science, American Politics Research, Political Research Quarterly, Political Behavior, Political Psychology, Public Opinion Quarterly, Public Choice, Canadian Journal of Political Science, International Journal of Public Opinion Research, International Political Science Journal, European Journal of Political Research, Journal of European Public Policy, Comparative Political Studies, Perspectives on Politics, Electoral Studies, and the Election Law Journal, Political Analysis, the Journal of Political Economy, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Review of Economic Studies, Review of Economic and Statistics, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, Journal of Human Resources, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, and Public Administration Review.
In performing our search for studies that met these criteria, we used what we understand to be the state of the art for collecting a corpus of studies for meta-analysis, though we acknowledge that this remains an active and ever-changing area of research (DerSimonian & Laird, 1986; Kalla & Broockman, 2018; Lipsey & Wilson, 2001; Valentine et al., 2010).
Though our search revealed a substantial number of studies that met our criteria, we did have to exclude some (laudable) studies that came close to what we needed, but ultimately lacked certain desired criteria (see Online Appendix). (We discuss the results of excluded studies in the Online Appendix; if we could include these in the meta-analysis, it would not change our conclusions.)
Some may wonder how many studies are needed to do a valid meta-analysis. Valentine et al. (2010, p. 245) show that “the answer is ‘two studies’.”
The outcomes are measured as early as 1–7 days after the election to as long as 24 months after the election (and in-between that range too).
Coppock and Green (2015) show the effect is large in both Midterm or Presidential elections and robust to using validated voter turnout.
This is true also in our instrumental variable analyses provided in Fig. A5 in Online Appendix.
Some may want us to look for heterogeneities by individuals’ vote propensity. This is not possible given that the treatment used is voting eligibility in youth’s first election. However, the fact that our null results hold across strong predictors of voting (e.g. SES) should give readers assurance that we are not masking meaningful heterogeneity.
With these included, there is evidence of heterogeneity across studies (see the I2 and Cochran’s Q reported in Fig. 6 notes. However, virtually all of the heterogeneity in effects is being driven by the Bruce and Lima (2019) study, which is, itself, an outlier in that it gets distinct results from Holbein and Rangel (2020) and De Leon and Rizzi (2014). If we remove these outlier results from the meta-analysis, there is only moderate evidence (see Higgins & Green, 2011) of heterogeneity across studies according to the I2 (66.5%, 51.1%, and 51.1%) and Cochran’s Q (p = 0.01, p = 0.07, p = 0.07). If we remove both, there appears to be little evidence of heterogeneity—reinforcing the notion that these studies are the exception rather than the rule.
Examining the TVH in underdeveloped democracies is worthwhile as the effects could (in theory) be positive, negative, or null. The voting experience in these contexts may elicit negative attitudinal and behavioral effects if there is violence around polling locations, for example. Or the effects could be positive if having all citizens collectively experience voting for the first time (as in a new democracy) produces social reinforcements requisite for a transformative effect. Whether or not these effects—or no effects at all—is an important question for future research to consider.
It’s possible, for example, that positive transformative effects may require multiple doses. While one voting experience may not take enough time to produce a transformative effect (Holbein & Rangel, 2020), when one accumulates the time spent in multiple elections it may be sufficient to cross a threshold necessary for transformative effects. This too, however, is an open empirical question.
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This support was provided by the National Science Foundation (Grant No. #SES-1657821).
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We wish to thank Michael Barber, Alexander Coppock, Charles Crabtree, Thomas Fujiwara, D. Sunshine Hillygus, Christopher Karpowitz, Vladimir Kogan, Stéphane Lavertu, Quin Monson, Matthew Pietryka, Marcos Nakaguma, Lindsay Nielson, Peter Loewen, Andre Blais, and Semra Sevi and participants at the APSA, MPSA, APPAM meetings, Princeton University, Duke University, the University of Virginia, Brigham Young University, University of Toronto and Université de Montréal for their thoughtful comments.
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Holbein, J.B., Rangel, M.A., Moore, R. et al. Is Voting Transformative? Expanding and Meta-Analyzing the Evidence. Polit Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-021-09746-2
- Transformative voting hypothesis
- Voter turnout
- Social capital
- Civic engagement
- Regression discontinuity