Stay In, Turn Out?: Graduation Rates and Voting Patterns
As political candidates across the country scramble for votes and political strategists plan “get out the vote” efforts for this fall’s mid-term elections, political commentators are already lamenting what they predict to be disappointing voter turnout numbers.
One factor that may affect voter turnout is the education level of the electorate. Researchers have consistently found that individuals with higher levels of education are more likely to vote in U.S. elections than those with less education. For example, data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that 52% of high school graduates reported voting in 2004 compared with just 35% of those who attended high school but did not obtain a diploma. Similarly, a recent report from the National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC) finds that voter turnout for high school dropouts declined by a greater percentage than turnout for college graduates between 1976 and 2004, widening the gap in electoral participation between these two groups.
In this week’s Stat of the Week, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center looks at whether states with lower high school graduation rates for the 2002-03 school year also had lower voter turnout in the 2002 and 2004 elections. Using graduation rates calculated by the EPE Research Center, we divided states into quintiles based on their 2002-03 graduation rates. The 10 states with the highest graduation rates comprise the top quintile (High Grad Rate), with the bottom 10 states making up the lowest quintile (Low Grad Rate). Voter turnout was then tabulated for each quintile for 2002 and 2004 using voting data from the NCOC report.
The analysis shows that states with lower graduation rates had lower voter turnout in 2002, a mid-term similar to this year’s election. A similar result was found for 2004, the year of the most recent presidential election. In fact, we find that voter turnout levels steadily increase as state graduation rates increase, quintile by quintile.
These descriptive findings are intriguing. However, gaining a more complete understanding of the relationship between states’ graduation rates and their levels of voter participation would require a more exhaustive analysis. For example, rates of residential mobility and migration vary across states and graduation rates change over time. As a result, a state’s 2002-03 graduation rate will not be a perfect predictor of the educational attainment of its voting age population, although the two indicators are closely related. In addition, poverty rates and demographic factors might affect both a state’s high school graduation rate and its voting patterns.
*Click image to view larger graphic.
Still, the findings raise an interesting set of questions about whether state efforts to improve education and graduation rates might also increase voting and political participation. As Rutgers University political scientist, Jane Junn, points out, improving political participation may be a complex endeavor and require more than just an overall increase in educational attainment. Voting behavior for disadvantaged groups may be affected by disparities in educational attainment and political activity may remain low for those at a relative educational disadvantage. Nonetheless, improving graduation rates might be part of a broader strategy to ensure that election outcomes reflect the views of a larger segment of the American public.
Graduation rates used in this analysis were calculated using the Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI). More information on graduation rates can be found in Education Week‘s Diplomas Count report at www.edweek.org/dc06.
Voter turnout data were taken from the National Conference on Citizenship’s Broken Engagement: America’s Civic Health Index report. See the full report at www.ncoc.net.
Education Week. (2006). Diplomas count: An essential guide to graduation policy and rates. Bethesda, MD: Author
Junn, J. (2000 October). The significance of race and class for political participation. Paper prepared for presentation at the conference, “Political Participation: Building a Research Agenda,” held by the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton University.
National Conference on Citizenship. (2006). Broken engagement: America’s civic health index. Washington, DC: Author. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, November 2004
To find out more about graduation policies in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, access the Education Counts database.