Sustaining a nonrepresentative democracy : how education shapes long-term voting patterns
Voter turnout in the United States is lower than most other advanced democracies and is largely driven by educational attainment. Thus, those who have had success within educational institutions are more represented in our democracy. At its core, voting is an opportunity for individuals to voice their opinions to those in positions of power in government. The link between education and voting may be through encouraging students to use their voices and empowering them to speak to those in positions of power across the life course. Using the High School & Beyond Dataset linked to individuals voting records in midlife, I examine three aspects of the link between education and voting in midlife to better understand the educational pathways that empower individuals to vote. First, I extend literature on the link between education and voting in early adulthood by estimating the effects of college entry, completion, and context on voting in midlife. I find that early college entry effects midlife voting, and higher levels of degree attainment are associated with voting more often in midlife. Second, I focus on adolescence as a critical period for identity development and empowerment and investigate high school experiences that support voting. Specifically, I examine the relationship between high school (dis)empowering experiences—leadership positions, advanced course-taking, and discipline—and voting in midlife, paying critical attention to the role of background, skills, educational attainment, and early voting in the process. I find that advanced course-taking positively and school discipline negatively predict voting in midlife, even when considering these factors. Lastly, I examine how teachers mold political efficacy through their perceptions of students’ potential and conformity and find that positive perceptions of students are associated with higher rates of voting, and the association does not operate through students’ background, skills, or schooling experiences. In all, I find that adolescence is a critical period for individual empowerment, and experiences in schools contribute to whether individuals will exercise their right to vote across their lives. The unequal distribution of empowering experiences in schools may sustain a nonrepresentative democracy.