Social Studies

Children’s Voting Habits Could Influence Their Parents’ Political Participation

By Sarah Schwartz — September 12, 2023 4 min read
Image of a parent and child at a voting booth.
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Schools that run voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote campaigns usually have a straightforward goal—raise the number of students who exercise their rights to the franchise in the next election.

But a new study suggests that getting more young people to vote could increase their parents’ political participation, too, paying dividends across generations.

The research was published by the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy, a nonprofit that promotes civic education and civil discourse. The study found evidence of a trickle-down relationship in civic engagement: Most teenagers who voted in their first eligible presidential election had a mother who also voted.

These findings are in line with previous research, which has established that parents’ political participation influences their kids’ future habits.

But the researchers also found evidence of what they called a “trickle-up” relationship. Mothers of young people who voted in their first age-eligible election were more likely to vote in the next presidential election. This relationship was stronger among children of color, and children who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch.

“We have always thought of political influence as being modeled by parents and passing down to kids, but there is really great potential for kids to be models for their parents,” said Kirsten Slungaard Mumma, an assistant professor in economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the author of the study.

“It’s a two-way model, and the fact that it’s two-way is really exciting,” she said, noting that these findings could inform how schools target voter participation efforts.

The research also invites further thinking about the ways in which children’s civic engagement more broadly could influence the behavior or perspectives of the adults in their lives, said Elizabeth Clay Roy, the CEO of Generation Citizen, a national nonprofit that promotes civics education and youth civic engagement.

“[This research] attends to the fact that young people are not simply empty vessels to be poured into as it relates to civic life,” said Clay Roy, who was not involved with the report. “Young people are also civic actors, not just subjects.”

Is ‘passing the torch’ the wrong paradigm?

Slungaard Mumma analyzed voting records from about 580,000 Indiana students, who were 18 at the time of the 2012, 2016, or 2020 presidential elections. She also analyzed the voting records of their mothers, as identified by the children’s birth records.

Overall, just under a third of students voted in their first eligible presidential election. Young people whose mothers had voted in the previous presidential election were 20.3 percentage points more likely to be in this group of voters than young people whose mothers had not voted.

These numbers differed by race and socioeconomic status. The “trickle-down” effects were strongest for white students and students who did not qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

The “trickle-up” effects were smaller, but still statistically significant—and “substantial,” said Slungaard Mumma. When students participated in their first age-eligible presidential election, their mothers were 5.3 percentage points more likely to vote in the next presidential election.

These results also varied by race and income, but in the opposite direction from the trickle-down effects. They were larger for students of color and students who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch.

Slungaard Mumma emphasized that these results are not causal. The data only show a relationship between these voting behaviors, but can’t prove that it was children’s voting that caused parental voting, or vice versa. They suggest, however, that school-based efforts to increase students’ civic participation could have far-reaching effects, she said.

The differences by race and income invite future study, she said. “It’s a really interesting puzzle, and I think it’s something where we’re starting to understand how little we understand the ecosystem that creates future voters.”

It could be particularly meaningful to engage organizations of Black voters, to hear from mothers in focus groups about what these intergenerational relationships mean to them, Clay Roy said.

Generation Citizen has published resources for harnessing age diversity in civic life. Earlier this year, in partnership with civic organizations CoGenerate and the Millennial Action Project, the group put out a report with recommendations for intergenerational civic collaboration.

Discussions about civic participation are often focused on one generation “passing the torch to the next,” said Clay Roy.

“But what we recommend, with our research with lots of civic organizations working with folks across different age spectrums, is that this is not actually the right paradigm for focusing on how we make positive social change in our community,” she said. “We all have to be running the race at the same time.”

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