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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

Why do we vote? Tracing the roots of active citizenship

Tufts professors, students, researcher offer perspectives on civic engagement.

Graphic for sam berman’s civic engagement article
Graphic by Avril Lynch

“I voted,” reads the sticker, but don’t let the simplicity of the message fool you. What else lies behind those words?

“We know that the image of an active and engaged citizen is really central to people’s ideas of American identity,” Deborah Schildkraut, professor of political science, said. “I like to refer to it as an aspirational identity. … We think of [a good American] as someone who is active and informed and who votes in elections.”

Active citizenship is especially relevant this time of year.  On Tuesday, Americans from municipalities in 30 states will cast ballots for state-wide and local offices, and policy issues such as reproductive rights and marijuana regulation. Some Massachusetts municipalities are among those holding their local elections today.

If the U.S. lived up to the aspirational ideal Schildkraut described, voter turnout this week would be sky high. In reality, however, civic engagement varies.

“That’s why we call it aspirational,” Schildkraut said.

So what factors influence civic participation, and what is holding Americans back from the gold standard of engaged citizenship?

Schildkraut discussed how her ongoing research has revealed the importance of feelings of belonging and how citizens’ identification with their home states relates to their political involvement.

“The preliminary results seem to suggest that also people who score highly on identification with their state are also more likely to not just say they have voted, but do other forms of political engagement like contact their representative, attend a meeting [and] attend a rally or a protest,” Schildkraut said.

The link between feelings of belonging and civic participation can work both ways.

Sophomore Penelope Kopp, membership and recruitment director for the Tufts Democrats, noted that local civic engagement can actually strengthen a participant’s connection to their community.

“There’s this sense of getting to know your neighborhood more as you’re working on the political issues and that brings communities a lot closer,” Kopp said.

Schildkraut pointed out that feelings of alienation or lack of belonging can also impact citizens’ political activity.

“[Alienation] can lead to withdrawal. But if people can find solidarity with other people who feel that way, it can sometimes [motivate] a sense of wanting to … work even harder to make the country live up to its aspirations,” she said.

In addition, Schildkraut said people who strongly identify with the U.S. as a whole are more likely to fulfill certain obligations like being informed, engaging with politics and serving in the military.

However, the prevalence of particular reasons for political participation has changed over time.

Ruby Belle Booth (LA ’21), the elections coordinator for Tisch College’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, explained that the civic participation of youth today is slightly more issue-focused than previous generations.

“I think that a lot of young people don’t see being a good citizen or their civic duty as an abstract concept, and they think about it a lot as concern for their peers and their communities and [as] taking action on issues that they see affecting them,” Booth said.

Booth was the lead author of a CIRCLE study that found 35% of Gen Z voters in the 2022 election cycle cited “voting is my responsibility” as their primary reason for voting, while 40% of millennials did the same.

On the other hand, 24% of Gen Z voters chose “my vote can affect the outcome,” which was the second highest plurality after “voting is my responsibility.” This was 4% more than the proportion of millennial voters who selected the same.

Booth commented on motivational differences across demographics besides age.

“Our data in particular found Black youth were a lot less likely to say they voted because voting is their responsibility,” she said. “40% of non-Black youth said that ‘voting is my responsibility’ was their main reason for voting in 2022. … 21% among Black youth said that that was their reason.”

She emphasized that various demographics, whether divergent in race, ethnicity, geography or sexuality, are drawn to civic life by different principles.

Senior Katherine Brown, head of PR and outreach for Tufts Republicans, agreed with the Gen Z sentiment that a sense of duty is not her main motivation for voting.

“I wouldn’t say that I vote because I feel like it’s my civic duty. … I vote because I care about my country and … certain issues. But I don’t feel this moral obligation to vote,” Brown said.

Kopp echoed a similar attitude.

“We’re more motivated by issues … because our generation is facing a variety of crises,” she said. “It isn’t this abstract theory of civic engagement as a duty, it’s a necessity.”

Younger generations’ attention to specific policies also manifests itself through less partisan allegiance, according to Booth.

“You’re not going to get young people to turn out just to vote for the political party that they back, as maybe you could have in the past,” Booth explained.

Brown reflected on Booth’s sentiments.

Sometimes we [the Tufts Republicans] are really more ‘Tufts conservatives,’ because we have some real frustrations with the way the actual Republican Party is being run,” Brown said.

But how does this weaker partisanship influence young voter turnout?

Jeffrey Berry, professor emeritus of political science, pointed out that typically, highly partisan citizens vote more in local elections.

Still, CIRCLE’s research indicates that despite lower levels of partisanship, the 2018 midterms saw record youth turnout. It also found that youth voting levels in the presidential race were higher in 2020 than they had been since 1972.

Another factor that may influence participation is the amount of civic institutions and resources in a geographic area.

Brown is from Kansas City, and she compared opportunities for political engagement there to those in the Boston area.

“I don’t know of a single person in Kansas City who’s been involved in local campaigns,” Brown said. “There [are] not easy ways for young people to get plugged in in a city that doesn’t have a strong college life [like Boston does].”

Berry touched on two other key variables in local voter participation: social class and education level.

If you have somebody that has a graduate degree, which probably means they earn a good living, and they are interested in politics, they’re much more likely to vote than the rest of the population,” he said.

Booth also identified that the quality of local news outlets shapes youth participation especially.

“There’s such [an] opportunity to really get information into the hands of young people that can make them feel like they have a say in their local community,” she said.

Kopp and Brown agreed that this is especially true given today’s cultural emphasis on being informed.

“I think ignorance about issues can drive some people to want to know even more if they feel like they’re welcomed in that space, and they won’t be judged. Or if some people are afraid of being embarrassed about [not knowing] something, it might drive them to stay away,” Brown said.

The fear of being seen as ignorant can be a barrier to youth participation.

Of course, civic education is also a factor in the extent to which youth engage politically, Booth explained.

“Massachusetts has excellent civic education,” she noted.

But of all the factors that influence youth participation, Booth underscored the effect of two in voter turnout across regions.

That’s driven in large parts by voting laws and electoral competitiveness,” she said.

The interrelation of these practical components of accessibility and the philosophical underpinnings of civic participation plays a defining role in how Americans engage in their local, state and national communities. Its effects will play out across the U.S. and in Medford and Somerville on Tuesday and again on a grander scale next November.

Beyond mere pragmatic implications, though, exploring the sources of political involvement and their evolution can offer insight into how Americans see themselves in the context of their communities and their nation.

Today, concerns about the future of American democracy and citizenship abound, but Booth sees strength in the country’s newest voters.

“I think that young people, especially because of their values, still see the importance of the ideals of democracy,” she said. “They still have an optimism that we can … change our systems to actually meet those ideals.”