"It is just what I do" to "It doesn't really matter": Youth voters' considerations of voting as instrument and ritual



A collective paper project of UNI's Fall 2002 Political Communication class.



Authors: Catherine H. Palczewski, Ph.D., J. Aaron Boyd, Sarah A. Gillespie, Marie E. Hamer, Patrick G. Hanson, Michelle Kelsey, Stacey E. Lyon, Alison Reicks, Sarah Tuhy, Amber Wendt, Laure Wisgerhof, and Kathryn M. Zimmerly


With research assistance from: Nathan D. King and Ian M. Rockwell


Contact person:


Catherine H. Palczewski

Lang Hall 326

University of Northern Iowa

Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0139






"It is just what I do" to "It doesn't really matter": Youth voters' perceptions of the instrument and ritual aspects of voting



Abstract: Written as class-wide collective research project for a Political Communication course, this qualitative study explores young voters' perceptions of the meaning of voting. After conducting in-depth interviews with 66 eligible voters aged 18-25, the authors conducted a theme analysis. This study reveals that young people who tend to vote have a well-developed understanding of the ritual significance of voting which, in turn, contributes to their ability to recognize an instrumental effect. In contrast, those who do not vote tend to focus on the limited instrumental effect of voting, even as they argue that the effect of a wrong vote deters them from voting. This study provides data that would indicate a PSA campaign focusing on the instrumental effects of voting may be misdirected. Instead, it appears that the more ephemeral consummatory effects resonate more deeply with young voters.


Given the importance of voting to our system of government, the voting rates of those eighteen to twenty-four years of age add up to trouble for democracy. In fact, the CQ Researcher's October 20, 2000, cover story asked "Low Voter Turnout: Is America's Democracy in Trouble?" (Cooper, 2000). The reason for this concern is clear. Paralleling the general population, youth voting has steadily declined since 1972, the first national election in which eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds were allowed to vote. However, not only has youth voting declined, but it has declined at a rate more precipitous than that of the general population. According to U.S. Census Bureau data on national elections, 49.6% of youths eighteen to twenty-four reported voting in 1972, 42.2% in 1976, 39.9% in 1980, 40.8% in 1984, 36.2% in 1988, 42.8% in 1992, 32.4% in 1996, and reaching a nadir 32.3% in 2000 (Jamieson et al., 2002, p. 12). In off-year elections from 1980-2000, percentages were at least 15% lower than in national election years (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002). Keep in mind, these statistics represent the percentage of youths reporting that they voted and, as such, are likely inflated because people tend to over-report both registration levels and voting activity (Center for Voting and Democracy, n.d., Youth (Non-) Voters, para. 1).

Even as overall rates of voting were up 2% in the 2000 election from 1996 (Jamieson et al., 2002, p. 2), youth voting continued to decline, with other age cohorts voting at rates 14.4-36.1 percentage points higher. Citizens aged 65-74 years old actually voted at rates twice as much as those 18-24 (p. 8). Quite simply, the drop in youth voting "greatly exceeds the decline in total adult turnout during the same period" (Unlocking, 2002, p. 8). Even in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, survey data indicate that although youths' faith in government has increased, and they have stated an "intention to participate more vigorously in politics and community life, young adults' civic and political involvement has not increased in recent months" (Lake Snell Perry & Associates, 2002, p. 5, 8).

The end result of all these statistics is discouraging: eligible voters under the age of twenty-four represent a block of 21,000,000 votes (Unlocking, 2002, p. 8); with only 32.3% voting, that leaves 14,217,000 who do not vote. Lisa Y. Sullivan, founder and president of LISTEN, Inc. Explains: "Lack of youth voter participation in national and local elections should be a serious concern of the democracy reform movement. It can't possibly be a good sign for the future of democracy to know that 18- to 24-year-olds are so disenfranchised" (Sullivan, 2001, "Message" para. 3).

The concern about youth voting is not confined to the most recent election. Since Ted Halstead's "A Politics for Generation X" was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1999, "a new wave of rhetoric has emerged in youth voting" (Keiser, 2000, p. 33), rhetoric predicated on the idea that young people do not participate because they believe no one is listening to their concerns. As Anna Greenberg (2002) noted in The Nation, ". . . the parties and candidates speak in a language that is not very relevant to younger people&emdash;for instance, the heavy emphasis in Democratic circles on Social Security and Medicare, and educational issues primarily as they relate to young children" (p. 3).

In response, a number a groups have emerged to encourage youth voting: The Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org), the Youth Vote Coalition (www.youthvote.org), Project Vote Smart (www.vote-smart.org), Rock the Vote (www.rockthevote.org), Youth E-Vote (www.youthevote.net), Kids Voting USA (Jones, 1998, p. 79), MTV and the Kaiser Family Foundation's "Choose or Loose" campaign (www.mtv.com/ngv/intro_chooseorlose.html), the Foundation for Individual Responsibility and Social Trust (FIRST) (www.libertynet.org/~first), Vibrations (www.lish.org/vibratins/spring2001/vibrations8.htm) and Youth Service America (www.ysa.org). Others groups overtly seek to help politicians reach young voters. For example, the Campaign for Young Voters, provides a "candidate toolkit" (www.campaignyoungvoters.org) and Campiagns & Elections devoted a cover story to "Winning With Young Voters" (Skaggs & Anthony, 2002).

In addition, a number of major surveys and polls have been undertaken to determine the causes of youth non-voting. These include the Third Millenium's Neglection2000 "They Pretend to Talk to US, We Pretend to Vote" survey (Freyman & McGoldrick, 2000), the Panetta Institute's poll conducted by the Mellman Group (2000), the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement's (CIRCLE) "Short Term Impacts, Long Term Opportunities" survey (Lake Snell Perry, 2002), the Aspen Institute's "30 million missing voters" report (www.excelgov.org/demandcit/yvt/yvl2.htm), the Pew Charitable Trust's "America's No-Shows" (Doppelt & Shearer, 2001) and "Y Vote 2000" (Shearer, 2002), the PACE Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement's "Democracy and College Student Voting" (Haslup & O'Loughlin, 2001), Harvard's Institute of Politics' "Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service" (2000) survey, MTV and the Kaiser Family Foundations's "Youth, Voting and the 2000 Election" (2000), the National Association of Secretaries of State "New Millenium Survey" (2000), and Harvard University's "Vanishing Voter" project (Morin & Deane, 2000, p. A01).

Although young people vote in similar proportions to other "hot" demographic groups now targeted by politicians, such as Latinos and African-Americans (Berkowitz, 2002, para. 6), low voter turnout among youth warrants this intense concern because adult voting patterns are often established during youth (Hollihan, 2001). Even though some political scientists reassure that low youth voting is not too great of a concern and can "be attributed to the unsettled circumstances of this age group rather than to simple disinterest in politics . . ." (Flanigan and Zingale, 1998, 40), such an explanation is unpersuasive. This does not explain the consistent decline in the percentage voting, a decline that outstrips the one seen within the general population. Despite Flanigan and Zingale's (1998) belief that "[b]y age thirty-five, most people have joined the voting population at least on an occasional basis" (p. 41), the likelihood of this happening is dramatically lowered if one does not begin voting as a youth (Hollihan, 2001).

Disturbed by these statistics, we undertook a class-wide collective research project to qualitatively study young voters' perceptions of the meaning of voting. After conducting in-depth interviews with 66 eligible voters aged 18-25, the authors conducted a theme analysis of the responses. This study reveals that young people who tend to vote have a well-developed understanding of the ritual significance of voting which, in turn, contributes to their ability to recognize an instrumental effect. In contrast, those who do not vote tend to focus on the limited instrumental effect of voting, even as they argue that the effect of a wrong vote deters them from voting.



In order to assess the complex reasons why youths do or do not vote, this qualitative study offers more detailed information than existing surveys, using open-ended questions and an interview format to elicit responses from young voters concerning why they do or do not vote. Our purpose in this qualitative study is to supplement the vast array of already existing data on youth voting. Because this study will be qualitative, it can both add depth to the numbers provided by other studies and it can begin to determine the interrelationships between the myriad reasons youths offer for not voting.

Youths age eighteen to twenty-four were trained in interview techniques and each assigned to interview five informants. Informants were identified by each of the interviewers, drawing them from permanent and part-time residents of Black Hawk County (IA). The interviews were structured around two main questions: 1) Do you vote? and 2) Why or why not? The interviews were transcribed and analyzed using theme analysis, the themes being generated from the interviews. Using 18-24 year-olds as interviewers increases the reliability of the results, insofar as research indicates the level of truhtfulness increases when the interviewers are similar to the interviewees (Hurtado, 1994). Of the interviewers, four were male and nine were female. All were ethnically Eur-american and all were presently enrolled in college.

Conducting this study in Black Hawk County, Iowa, provides data that can speak to issues in the country as a whole. In 1994, 56.4% of 18-24 year olds were registered to vote in Iowa; of those 26.9% voted. In 1996, 54.3% of 18-24 year olds were registered in Iowa; of those 36.6% voted (Iowa Youth Development, 2001). As goes the state, so goes Black Hawk County. In the 2000 general election, 50.6% of registered voters aged 18-24 voted (Black Hawk County, Voter Statistics, 11/07/2000). However, these numbers represent participation in a presidential election year. Off-year election percentages are significantly lower, with only 19.4% voting in 1998 (Black Hawk County, Voter Statistics 11/03/1998). Nationally, 45.4% of people age 18-24 reported being registered to vote in the 2000 election (U.S. Census, November 2000). Assuming that the rates are similar in Iowa, we can deduce that 22.9% of those aged 18-24 voted in Black Hawk County.

This study included 66 respondents. Of those, twenty-eight (or 42.4%) indicated they voted. Twenty-two (33.3%) indicated they tended to not vote. Seven indicated they had not voted in the past, but planned to do so in the future. The final 9 indicated they voted sometimes, but not regularly. Accordingly, the sample seems to parallel the reported voting rates seen in national surveys, although the percentage reporting they vote is higher than actual voting rates, especially in mid-term elections.

The demographics of the respondents is as follows. The sample was evenly split between women and men. All but five of the respondents were currently enrolled in college. All but one respondent (who self-identified as Hispanic) self-identified as white or Caucasian. Eighteen identified an affiliation with the Democratic Party (with one indicating fiscally conservative Democrat), seventeen identified as independent, fifteen identified an affiliation with the Republican Party(with one indicating "tendencies" and another indicating liberal Republican), fourteen indicated no political affiliation, and two indicated an affiliation with the Green Party. Needless to say, one of the limitations of this study is that it primarily gives insight into the thoughts of Eur-american college students, and does not necessarily give insight into the thoughts of ethnic minorities or those who lack access to, or choose to forego, post-secondary education.

Existing Studies

Multiple reasons have been advanced as to why youths do not vote, all of which can generally be described as attitudinal and structural barriers. In terms of attitudes that negatively impact participation, reasons include disaffection from politics and politicians, lack of political socialization, and general disinterest. Structural barriers to voting include things that interfere with both the registration and physical act of voting. Of course, even with all these reasons, it may also be that some people choose to rationally abstain from voting (Cheney et al., 2001 quoting Ragsdale & Rusk, 1993).

Attitudinal barriers: Of all the attitudinal barriers, disaffection seems to be the primary explanation offered for low youth turnout. Disaffection, for the purpose of this study, can generally be understood as a personal negative feeling toward politics, politicians, the democratic process and its institutions. Studies and commentators indicate youths do not enjoy the political process (Institute of Politics, 200; Kaiser Family Foundation/MTV, 2000; Skaggs & Anthony, 2002; Freyman & McGoldrick, 2000; Doppelt & Shearer, 2001). This is quite surprising considering "young voters rely primarily on serious 'hard' qualities, and are so similar to older adultsd when evaluating candidates" (Skaggs & Anthony, 2002, p. 24). Candidates' messages need not change, simply their concept of audience. As Skaggs & Anthony (2002) conclude: "Young adults crave authenticity and honesty, and can smell phoniness a mile away. They often see politicians as promising things they can't deliver, and they will value someone who says they don't have all the answers. Candidates should just be themselves, and they'll actually have more appeal to young voters" (p. 25).

Part of the disaffection can be attributed to the perception that candidates do not talk to young voters, a perception captured by the title of the Neglection2000 study, "They Pretend to Talk to US, We Pretend to Vote" (Freyman & McGoldrick, 2000). As the Neglection2000 study discovered, "While older voters above age 50 comprise 36.6 percent of the voting-age population, they comprised 63.8 percent of the media impressions from campaign advertisements. In contrast, while younger voters age 18-34 are 31 percent of the voting-age population, advertisements that reached them accounted for only 14.2 percent" (Neglection2000, 2000, p.1). Similarly, the poll conducted by the National Association of Secretaries of State (2000) discovered, "67 percent of young people agree that 'our generation has an important voice but no one seems to hear it.' Young people obviously feel ignored by candidates and campaigns" (Introduction, para. 12).

Young voters are aware of the degree to which candidates target messages to older voters: "Young adults are eager for the attention, respect and access that politicians devote to older voters. They feel left out of the political process when they see candidates making little effort to address their concerns or win their votes" (Skaggs & Anthony, 2002, p. 25). Other reports echo this (Greenberg, 2002; Colin, 2000; Speckman, 1998; Skaggs & Anthony, 2002; Bigaliev, 2000; Strama, 1998; Kaiser, 2000; Shearer, 2001; Third Millenium, 200?).

Quite simply, there appears to be a cycle of mutual neglect (Neglection2000). One survey indicated that, in the 2000 election, 12% of young voters indicated they were not interested or that they believed their vote would not make a difference, and 8% indicated they did not like the candidates or campaign issues (Jamieson et al., 2002, 10). As Harvard's Institute of Politics (2000) study confirms, "Students have little trust in federal and state government" (p. 7), and "Students feel that elected officials are motivated by selfish reasons, and that political candidates, campaigns, institutions and the media are not concerned with what they think" (p. 8)

Structural Barriers: Distinct from attitudinal barriers are the structural issues that affect youth voting. Many young people move often, live away from home while attending college and distant from their representatives, and do not develop ties to their college communities (Kaiser, 2000; Haslup & O'Loughlin, 2001; Strama, 1998). As Strama (1998) explains: "Many young people tend to change residences frequently and therefore have less of a stake in local issues and local elections. They also tend to have fewer significant tax obligations, which gives them less of an investment in government decisions" (p. 2). What is intriguing is that most studies indicate a strong correlation between education levels and voting (Hollihan, 2001, p. 46); however, it appears that while one is getting the education, other factors overwhelm this correlation. Military service, geographic mobility, the possible failure to meet residence requirements and the additional hurdle of initial registration all create barriers to college-age voters. This explanation also fails to explain low turnout in national and statewide races, where connection to a local representative is not as relevant. In short, normal predictors of voting do not work for youths (Highton & Wolfinger, 2001; Abramson, Aldrich & Rhode, 1999).

In addition to the structural issue of being away from one's "home," youths also believe they lack adequate information to vote, and do not know how to access it (Institute of Politics, 2000; Kaiser Family Foundation, 2000; Kaiser Family Foundation/MTV, 2000; Speckman, 1998). Both institutional and parental factors influence this lack of understanding of the process or how to be engaged in it (Hollihan, 2001, p. 46-7; Streetman, 2000).

Institutionally, civics education is not happening until later in school, if at all. The end result is that "Young adults do not feel as compelled as older voters by the notion that they have a civic obligation to vote" (Freyman & McGoldrick, 2000, p. 15). Cultural processes do not normalize political participation (Kornbluh 2000; Plutzer 2002; National Association of Secretaries of State, 2000; Colin, 2000). Quite simply,

As young citizens confront their first election, all of the costs of voting are magnified: they have never gone through the process of registration, may not know the location of their polling place, and may not have yet developed an understanding of party differences and key issues. Moreover, their peer group consists almost entirely of other nonvoters: their friends cannot assure them that voting has been easy, enjoyable, or satisfying. Young people also lack many of the resources that can promote participation. (Plutzer, 2002, p. 42).

As a study by the National Association of Secretaries of State (2000) remarks, "Young people also lack information and understanding about the democratic process. For example, many youths complain that they do not know how to exercise even the most basic of democratic rights-casting a vote. Both survey and focus group data suggest that high school government classes do not educate young people effectively about the mechanics of voting, about the current political issues, or about how to find reliable information" (Section 3, para.10). In fact, 7% indicated they did not vote in 2000 because they were uncertain about registration (Jamieson et al., 2002, 10). A study conducted by Project Vote Smart and the Pew Charitable Trust (1999) provides more detail: "When those who were not registered were presented a list of possible reasons for not being registered to vote, the most frequent reason given by younger respondents was that they 'find the process too much of a hassle' (39%). The second most common reason was that they 'have not had time to register yet' (38%). Almost a third (31%) of these young respondents also indicated that registering was "not a priority right now" (p. 14).

Knowledge about the mechanics of voting is not the only problem. As the National Association for Secretaries of State (2000) notes in their survey:

It is not just ignorance about how to vote, but for whom to vote. Focus groups and survey respondents felt that if they could not make an informed vote, they would not vote at all. When respondents were asked an open-ended question about why young people do not vote, 25% say they do not have enough information about the candidates who are running. This response is statistically tied with inefficacy as the highest cited reason why young people do not vote. Many young people do not feel comfortable voting because they do not feel they have a good handle on who the candidates are, what the candidates stand for, or even what their job responsibilities entail. (Section 3, para.14)

Without a firm sense of who the names are on the ballot, most 18-24 year olds are afraid their possible wrong choice could do more damage to democracy than not voting at all.

Parental political socialization also plays a role in developing attitudes toward voting (National Association of Secretaries of State, 2000; Lake Snell & Perry, 2002; Abramson, Aldrich & Rhodes, 1999; Doppelt & Shearer, 1999; Colin 2000). Many believe parental participation may be the "largest effect on initial turnout" (Plutzer, 2002, p. 48) and "one of the strongest predictors of youth voting" (National Association of Secretaries of State, 2000, Section 4, para. 5). University of Southern California Communication Studies professor Thomas Hollihan argues the reason parents role in their children's political socialization is so prominent is because of the trust which exists within that relationship (p. 43).

Regardless of the reason youths do not vote, one thing seems clear; virtually no study makes the case that apathy is the cause. Numerous reports indicate youths are volunteering at unprecedented rates (Campus Compact Youth Vote, n.d., Youth Vote Initiative main page; Berkowitz, 2002, para. 8; Moselym 1999). As Strama (1998) explains: "Young people have not lost their civic spirit. Various studies indicate a much higher level of volunteerism in today's generation of young people than in that of their more politically active parents thirty years ago. But it appears that volunteering may be a substitute for voting and other forms of political participation for many who feel they cannot make a difference through the political system" (p. 1). Additionally, volunteering provides instant gratification, while results from an electoral vote may take years to see, especially given perceptions of a gridlocked Congress. However, "some say they may be more interested in voting later in life when they have more of a stake in the issues on which politicians focus" (Doppelt & Shearer, 2001, p. 34).

Two explanations are offered for this apparent disjunction. First, youths do not see the systemic causes that lead to the problems they volunteer to alleviate and nor do they see how voting can affect policies (Shearer, 2002; Strama, 1998; Kaiser Family Foundation, 2000). Additionally, the effects of politics is long term, but youths see effects of volunteering immediately (Doppelt & Shearer, 1999, 2002). As Doppelt & Shearer (2002) explain, "young people are the least likely to see any connection between politics or public policy and their lives. They do, however, like to engage in civic activities through volunteering, at rates almost as high as voters, and they want to see some impact from their actions. They see voting as neither a duty nor a choice that has impact" (p. 4).

The qualitative approach used by this study to assess voting attitudes is warranted. As indicated above, a number of surveys and polls have been conducted, but they all use closed-ended or multiple choice questions (e.g. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2000; Project Vote Smart, 1999; Lake Snell Perry & Associates, 1998; Institute of Politics, 2000; Freyman and McGoldrick, 2000 ; Austin and Pinkleton, 1995; Why Vote 2000, 2000;Vanishing Voter Project (Morin & Dean, 2000). In the few instances in which researchers used more open-ended questions, the results were distilled down into numerical data, losing any ability to offer a nuanced explanation of how the various influences on voting interact (Lake Snell Perry & Associates, 2002 ). We seek to avoid relegating youth voters to speak through predetermined answers and through aggregate numbers. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, existing studies do not hint at the significance of the ritual element of voting to youths.


Consistent with previous survey studies, respondents' perceptions of politicians was a recurrent factor in their decision whether or not to vote. In particular, respondents indicated they wanted straight talk. In terms of the general perceptions of politicians, responses ranged from seeing them as corrupt, bad and greedy, or as good, or as depending on the politician and the situation. Although these responses were not unique, the most frequent and intensely expressed major theme was. The bulk of respondents discussed what a vote means, both for themselves and in terms of its effects on government. The bulk of our discussion focuses on the instrumental and consummatory functions of voting .

The interviews made clear that a range of perceptions existed about what a vote means, both for the person as a citizen and also in terms of a votes' influence on government. In other words, respondents recognized both a consummatory and instrumental function for the vote. In some cases, the simple act of voting was reason enough to vote. For others, the potential effect of a vote on the outcome influences their decision to participate.

Voters' recognition of the ritual power of politics: Voting . . . "it is just what I do"

In many cases, the young people in this study believe that even if their vote had no perceptible effect on policies, it was still important to exercise the right. A range of reasons were offered that spoke to why voting, in and of itself, was important: responsibility to previous generations who had fought, and in some cases, died for the right; duty to future generations to preserve the processes of democracy; pride in the United States' system of democracy, voice an opinion; or just because it was what they do.

Responsibility: "We should at least be considerate and vote": Four respondents indicated that others had died so that they could vote. Toby summarized this perspective, explaing: "I mean, a lot of people died to give us our right so we can fight. They fought for this right. So, you know we should at least be considerate and, uh, vote, just because of that." Four indicated that other groups had had to struggle for the right to vote, and so we should not take it for granted, with Lawrence explaining ". . . although your one vote typically won't sway an election it's, I think it's sort of the civic duty that you should, you should vote because it's, it's been such a cherished thing in our past by, ya know, past generations and people have, have fought and struggled and protested to get the vote for all sorts of groups and so I see it as a ya know, partly as civic duty. . ." Lawrence articulated this position in the most depth, recognizing that "One way or the other, it [the vote] doesn't really matter, but just the act of voting itself I think is the important thing." He continued:

I see a vote as um, an individuals chance to actually participate in, in government. I mean with how large our country is, you know, getting close to 300 million people you-your vote seems more diluted every time you see population counts and that type of thing but I think it's, you know, although your one vote typically won't sway an election it's, I think it's sort of the civic duty that . . . you should vote because it's, it's been such a cherished thing in our past by, you know, past generations and people have, have fought and struggled and protested to get the vote for all sorts of groups and so I see it as, you know, partly as civic duty and, you know . . . it's your one chance to, to certainly participate in the political process . . .

Future Generations: "It's my civic duty": Others spoke of an abstract duty to future generations. Even if respondents saw no immediate effect on politics, they did realize that a failure to vote could placed the entire system in jeopardy. Lily indicated that if votes were not exercised, "Well, it's a constitutional right that many people in other countries don't have and I think that uh, our country is the greatest democracy and that we should all take example and vote, and continue to vote because if you don't vote then you'll have elite parties emerging and our democracy will be in jeopardy." Lucy concurred, "I feel that it's my civic duty. In order to keep our democracy prospering, we need voices from every segment of the population . . ."

Pride: "I feel that's one of our duties by living here": Pride in the United States also recurred as a theme. Walter explained:

I think everybody should vote. Um..I don't know, I just think that given we're a democracy that we have the power with our voting, to...ya know... elect our leaders ourselves, unlike...ya know... many other countries throughout the world. And ya know I don't know if I could give you like a cotton candy interpretation of why I think its right, I just think its right because we have the power to do so, and ya know the power to change things that we don't like within our governement. I just think we should take advantage of it, basically. . . I've done my duty for my country cause I feel that it is a privilege to live here. It the greatest country in the world and, ya know, I feel that's one of our duties by living here.

Randy agreed, saying, "As for me, I vote because it's a freedom and a right." Tracy concurred, explaining, "I feel like its our American duty quote unquote to, you know, be able to participate in the future of our government." Another made clear, "It means to me that I feel like I'm doing my duty as a citizen to participate, because democracy only works if people participate. And I feel like that's my job: to use my political voice, even if it's only one voice." Even when people recognized the limited instrumental effect of the vote, they still recognized the duty attached to the action. Karen noted, "It's your voice in the government. It's a small voice, but you have a voice...at least a say and it's your responsibility to do it."

Woodrow echoed these sentiments, linking the right to complain to the exercise of the right to vote: "I guess I feel it's like my civic responsibility as a citizen and I don't think you really have a right to complain about stuff the government does if you don't do your job if you don't vote. . . it's just our duty to do that thing." This theme, of voting being a precondition to legitimate complaint, was reflected in many others' comments as well.

Voice: "I . . . vote just to make myself heard": The theme of voice also was consistent in the responses, almost exclusively in the responses of the young women interviewed. Gillian explained that even when the effect of the vote was minimal, it was still a way to voice opinion: ". . . in order to make your voice heard you have to vote for somebody . . . But that doesn't always work. . . . [So] it's just, um, a way of letting or making your beliefs and opinions and other stuff about how laws should be made and be represented." Lily framed her discussion of voting as a right and a privilege as part of the process of voicing her opinion, especially as a woman:

I think it is, it's a right and a privilege. I think it's a right as a human being to have a say in whose controlling you. . . And I think that it is a privilege because many, many places don't have that right, you're not allowed to speak, you're not allowed to say anything. Especially as a woman I think it is a wonderful privilege and a right to vote. I think that everyone should have the opportunity to be heard because that's how ideas get out there, and that's how thoughts get going and people get thinking, on different issues.

Martha echoed this sentiment: "So I think it's even more important that I as a woman and as a liberal woman vote just to make myself heard I suppose." But women, alone, were not the only ones to speak of voicing an opinion. Sam concurred: "I vote as a function of, ah, having my opinion heard no matter how infinitesimal."

One respondent, Rose, even compared the power of the vote as a voice to other forms of political participation:

It's my voice. I mean, we can go out and protest and go outside and yell and people can shut the e windows and the doors. They can do stuff to not hear you. When you can actually vote and personally make a difference, some people don't think it makes a difference, but when it comes down to it, it really does. Because the less people that actually vote the less informed we are. If more people stop voting, it's just going to take away our voice. I guess, to me people who don't vote and then complain about how the government is run, that's a crock. Because you had the ability to say what you think. Then again, I didn't like Bush or Gore, I felt like I was picking between the lesser of the two evils. But it's your ability to say. It's the only voice you do have.

Hester agreed with the importance of voting as voice, even as she recognized the limited instrumental effect of the vote. She explains, "I'd like to think that it matters. I don't know necessarily if my one vote will influence anybody, but I like to think that by expressing my views and feelings it might help to influence other people who would in turn vote and express their views." This perspective also was reflected by Tracy and Ken who both described voting as a way to at least put in my "two cents." Two cents is not very much, but it is theirs. Abe indicated, "I guess my vote, me going, like voting, I don't, like that really doesn't have a lot to say. But yet it's important. A single vote itself doesn't decide an outcome in an election, yet it's still an extremely important thing you gotta do."

Identity: "It's a personal victory": Michael indicated that voting simply was a matter of personal "pride" in making a "contribution":

Personally my vote matters a lot more to me than to people in general. With the whole political climate as it is now, it's very important that people who actually speak up and actually do exercise their right to vote and actually take pride in what they are doing, in participation. The most important aspect of it is to exercise your right to vote.

A similar perspective was offered when Wendall was asked "what do you think your vote means?": "I think it means a lot, I think one of the reasons I vote is to (long pause) not make my voice heard but use my right that has been given to me. And so I think using it means a lot, like to me personally because then I know that I have participated in the government since I will probably never be a politician." For Terrence, he voted because "it is just what I do." In other words, it seems apparent that youth are aware of the importance of the ritual element of politics, even if they did not speak of it in those terms. Perhaps the ceremonial and celebratory function of the vote was best expressed by Sam, when he explained: "I am one of the attitude that my vote is a personal victory for myself . . . It's a personal declaration, though somebody who merely tabulates them might be the only person who ever reads it."

Conclusion: Perhaps it is this ritual element that makes the mere act of voting important, and important enough for Gillian to exclaim: "I just found out I'm registered and that's very exciting." However, even as most of the regular voters noted the ritualistic and consummatory elements of voting, they also were more likely to perceive instrumental effects to the act. In contrast, as will be discussed later, those who did not vote, or at least did not vote regularly, tended to focus on the lack of instrumental effect and were completely silent about the ritualistic elements.

Voters' recognition of the instrumental effects: "A lot of ones add up to a lot"

Our results tend to indicate that perceiving an instrumental effect is less determinative of being a consistent voter than perceiving a consummatory function. However, even as people articulated a consummatory function, they also often noted an instrumental effect. Tony explained "One person does count; you know, a lot of ones add up to a lot." Twenty four of the respondents, over one-third, indicated a vote gave them a say in what goes on in the government and over what officials are elected. For these people, a vote is important because, as Andy explained, "you gotta have the right officials in the office." Penny agreed, remarking, a vote "gives my personal point of view on, um, what I think about the country and who I want to be in control." Walter echoed this sentiment, justifying his vote because "I think everyone should vote. . . because we have the power to do so, and, you know, the power to change things that we don't like within our government." In fact, there appeared to be a relationship between perceiving instrumental and consummatory effects. In other words, respondents were more likely to see an instrumental effect if they also believed in a consummatory one.

Also noteworthy is the social contract element of the vote noted by some respondents. Eleven indicated that a vote meant they were putting their faith in someone, which Tony explained as "choosing someone you think can fill a position and represent you as a, whether it be community, state, as a nation." Overall, it seems that one sees clear trends in distinguishing between the instrumental and consummatory effects of voting. Perhaps, it is familiarity with the ritual powers of political participation that are important, because believing in the ritual process makes one more likely to attribute instrumental effects of the vote.

In fact, despite the diversification of forms of political participation, some respondents still identified voting as the location with the greatest likelihood for an effect. Lawrence believed "you're greatest chance to sway the way things are going to turn out in the future are going to happen at the ballot box." For these young people, the reason to vote was not for personal or self-interested reasons, but because they believed their votes could make the world a better place. Gary explained he voted "because I want, um, other people, maybe, to have it a little bit easier on them then."

The 2000 and 2002 elections were consistently cited as evidence of the importance of a few votes. Instead of focusing on the voting irregularities in Florida (which the non-voters tended to do), voters instead used the closeness of the election there as evidence of the importance of voting. Gina believed her votes made a difference, "Especially with Florida. I mean, there was that whole issue with number of votes, so yeah, I think one person can make a difference." Mary agreed with this assessment: "The last presidential election proved that the vote can mean a lot because elections can be very close, so just a hand full of votes can make a difference in whether or not a candidate gets elected." Jake concurred: "a few votes here and there can really effect an election."

In terms of the 2002 election, the respondents consistently remarked on the narrow balance of power in the Senate as a reason for participation, even in the typically low turnout midterm election. Lucy pointed to the "very close division in congress" as a reason why she " just felt that everyone's vote counted."

Failure of ritual for non-voters: "Voting has never really meant anything to me"

Those who tended not to vote tended not to see any consummatory effect. In most cases, there was simply an absence of any discussion of a personal meaning of the vote. Such a consideration was simply non-existent. However, two non-voters did provide hints at this perspective. For them, the ritual had become so hollow, it had lost all meaning. Scott indicated "Voting has never really meant anything to me." Josh, searched for the words to explain voting's meaninglessness to him: "See I don't know, I mean, do you know what I mean? Like I don't, that's why I don't vote because I don't really see what it means to do it I mean…I guess you know it's a way to, ahh, I don't know…" Instead of discussing the lack of personal meaning, non-voters tended to focus on the lack of any instrumental effect.

However, three interesting exceptions should be noted. Even though non-voters tended to either ignore ritual values completely, or at least dismiss them, three non-voting respondents seemed to recognize the possibility of a consummatory effect for voting. Anne indicated "I think if I get to the ballots and actually do it I feel like I will have made some sort of difference even if it doesn't really matter." Abe noted the responsibility to those who have fought to protect our freedoms, explaining "it's our duty to vote. You know, the people that go into the military and, and they do that for our country, but I think voting is something that everyone should do." Even with a minimal effect, Abe believed "A single vote itself doesn't decide an outcome in an election, yet it's still an extremely important thing you gotta do. Alan also noted, that when he votes, he feels "Ah man, I feel better, I made a contribution."

Failure of effect for non-voters: "It doesn't really matter"

For non-voters, because they could see no real effect of their particular vote, they chose not to participate. This sentiment was summed up by Nick, who said "I think people are going to bitch about whoever gets elected, so it doesn't really matter." Twenty others agreed their vote simply did not matter in terms of influencing politics. In other words, for almost a third of the respondents, the meaning of the vote was determined only in relation to its instrumental effects and, perhaps, this is one of the strongest explanations of the decline of voting rates. It is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the immediate effect of a vote on the political system, and this immeasurability is something of which youth are extremely aware. In explaining the minimal effects of voting, respondents referred to his or her one vote's mathematical insignificance, the electoral college, the greater importance of money over votes, and the failure of the two party system.

Mathematical insignificance: "It's not going to make a difference": Among the reasons listed for why their vote did not matter, respondents included that their single vote was swamped by the totality of votes. Will explained "I don't really think [my one vote] matters at all. I mean there's too many people for me to feel that my one voice is all that significant. Which is probably a good reason why I don't both going because it's not going to make a difference. I'm not going to get what I want, 'cause usually I want the opposite of what everyone else wants." Others indicted that votes cancel each other out. Even though Andy recognized the slim margin of victory in the 2000 presidential election, he also explained that "I have some friends that, one was going to vote for Gore and one was going to vote for Bush and they figure they cancelled each other out and that's kind of a rationale that a lot of people have and a complacency that people have, ya know, that they just don't think it matters, and they don't think it matters 'cause it seems like no one cares so they're just not going to vote. They don't think their actual vote matters."

Even when it was clear that the young people interviewed in this study had seen the PSAs, and had been socialized to the idea that every vote counts, they still discounted the mathematical significance of their single vote. Josh made clear the insignificance of his vote, even in the face of PSAs that attempted to convince him otherwise: "I just don't see how my, how my vote really effects anything. You know, but 'every vote counts' -- blah blah blah. I've heard it all before (laughing)." Susan echoed these sentiments: "I don't feel like my vote actually counts for much. . . . I just, we just don't really have much of a say, and they say, oh yeah, 'you have your vote,' but I don't think it really counts for much." This failure to have an instrumental effect on others also meant that Susan perceived that the vote had no meaning for her, either: "I don't feel like my vote actually counts for much. . . . I just, we just don't really have much of a say, and they say, oh yeah, you have your vote, but I don't think it really counts for much." Will also collapsed the instrumental and ritual functions of the vote. After explaining "I don't really think it matters at all. I mean there's too many people for me to feel that my one voice is all that significant," the interviewer asked "as kind of an overall, general ideology. . . does vote mean anything to you?" Will answered, "I think it's a good concept, but. . . I just really don't think that it can make a difference."

The wide net cast to explain the insignificance of the vote was exemplified by Linda. As she struggled to work through all the reasons justifying her non-voting, she ultimately concluded with its mathematical meaninglessness:

Um, because the politicians to me seem kind of scandalous. There is always something corrupt going on. Um, it's just something I don't feel comfortable doing. And my parents don't really, they aren't very active in politics, so I just feel that my vote doesn't matter even though people always say 'oh your vote counts, your vote counts.' But in the grand scheme of things, one person out of many doesn't make that much of a difference.

No matter how many PSAs or government classes she may have attended, she was not to be convinced of a vote's meaning.

Electoral college: "Kind of like the religion of Scientology": Contributing to the perception that their votes do not matter was the role of the electoral college in the 2000 presidential election. In fact, one of the most interesting findings was the intensity of dislike of the electoral college, with Kate saying "I know that my vote doesn't matter anyway because the good old Electoral College takes care of that business. . . You want to know my little personal thing on voting? Is that it sucks, it doesn't matter, 'cause American voice doesn't matter in any kind of a presidential election 'cause the Electoral College does not really pay attention to that, they vote for who they want. . ." Scott agreed: "They say that your vote counts, but at the same time the electoral college, which seems to be this fictitious group that nobody understands, decides makes the final decision on who, who gets put into office and stuff." Tony indicted the Electoral College means we are voting "once removed from voting for the presidency" and Terrance remarked the Electoral College is "kind of like the religion of Scientology, nobody really knows what it's about." The remarks on the Electoral College both indicate an increased awareness of its role (wherein a person may win the majority of the popular vote and still not be elected President since the votes are apportioned on a state by state basis), and a failure to understand how it operates. However, the way the Electoral College is described makes clear it fits into larger perceptions that the system is stacked against making votes count. However, perhaps most interesting, is the way Alan made clear the connection between the Electoral College's effect on the instrumental outcome and the way this lessened the consummatory function of the vote: ". . . I don't think that [the Electoral College is] necessarily fair, because it's all, ah, my vote, personally, will, I have a feeling that it will make a difference, like, when I go and actually vote then, yes, I say, 'Ah man, I feel better; I made a contribution," you know, but in the grand scheme of things no, it doesn't really matter, because the Electoral College has everything to do with it . . ."

Money: "Governed by the rich for the rich": This perception was reinforced by the consistent theme that votes do not matter because money, not a vote, carries power. Joe saw lots of prejudice, where politics was "governed by the rich for the rich. To make, it just feels like, ahh, they do what they can to keep their, to keep themselves, the rich, fat and happy." Alex echoed this sentiment: "It's . . . always has been it's been the rich people in charge . . . money's gonna stay where it's at because that's who's there, and they're going to take care of who they, who they know and they're gonna take care of their money."

The party system: "They want to steal voted from each other": The final factor people identified as interfering with the power of their vote was the party system, with Alan noting "with the two party system there's no way a third party can ever enter . . ." Voting for a third party candidate was viewed as throwing a vote away, and the Democrats and Republicans were too similar to each other to offer a real choice. Woodrow explained he would never vote for a third party candidate "Because basically, if you don't vote for one of the two parties, you're vote doesn't really make a difference," yet, voting for the two primary parties is not a real choice because "pretty much the Democrats and Republicans, I mean they're different middle of the road on every single issue, 'cause they want to steal votes from each other, that it's not really that much of a difference between whoever gets elected . . ." Karen and Kathleen thought one way to limit the power of the two main parties was by doing away with the straight party vote option.

Other considerations for non-voters

No vote better than wrong vote: "I don't think it's right to just vote blindly": Even as non-voting respondents made claims about votes meaninglessness, they also engaged in argument premised on the importance of voting. For many of the respondents, they did not want to vote for fear of voting wrong. For example, when explaining why he did not vote, Josh minimized the effect of his vote even as he also pointed out that his lack of information would result in a "bad" vote, having negative effects on the state:

For one I guess kind of the fact that I don't see how my vote's gonna count and I'm not that informed. I don't like just listening to commercial would not be good enough they all put a spin on what you want, or, what they want you to hear so I don't think I have enough information to make an informed decision. Which wouldn't help the state by any means, so?

Sally also noted that she was not prepared to vote, explaining she has not voted "in the past few years because I haven't felt confident enough, like I've been educated enough, and I don't want to really vote unless I am educated enough to know who is standing for what, and who I really want to vote for." Ralph agreed: "I don't really know anything about the candidates at all and I don't think it's right to just vote blindly, so I won't vote."

Grant and Greta both explained their choice not to vote as one determined by their lack of familiarity with the issues. Even Walter, who typically voted, did not do so in the last election because "I don't think I'm informed enough." For him, he knew he "should" vote, he did not think "I could make a correct choice with my vote" and, so, he did not vote.

However, not all non-voters minimized the effect of voting. Henrietta believed voting is "a very important thing because it helps determine how our state will be run, and, it shouldn't be something that should be taken very lightly." But that is precisely why she "choose[s] not to vote because I don't just want to randomly pick people when I know nothing about them so I think that for voting you need to be very educated and that's what I think a vote would mean." The question raised by this response is: if voting is so important, then why is it not worth the time to educate one's self about the issues and candidates? This brings us to the final theme present in non-voters' responses: time is valuable, more valuable than whatever is gained from voting.

Time: "I just don't bother with voting": Given the limited, if non-existent value assigned to voting, students engage in a simple calculus of costs and benefits, with the result being that voting is simply not worth their time. For Wendell "either I don't have enough time, or I don't know enough about the issue...or the person being elected. So I don't vote. I guess I'm not educated enough." Nor is Wendell willing to take the time to get educated on the issues: "nor do I have the time due to the fact that I am a full time college student to go out there and get educated."

Even if one has put in the time to be educated, other barriers are noted. For example, voting absentee was just "too much work . . . such a hassle" for Susan, she did not vote. For Abe, his dislike of the two candidates (which begs the question: "What election has only two candidates in it?") meant it was not worth his time to vote. For Grant, he was willig to vote, only "if I have time on Tuesday . . . but if I don't have time I'm not real concerned about it." For Will, voting generally takes "too much time out of my day." This balancing decision between voting was summarized by Henrietta: "It's not that I don't care, its just that I at this time, I don't really feel I have the time."

Within the context of the limiting meaning of the vote, respondents' comments about the inconvenience associated with voting begin to make more sense. If voting offers little to no return for the effort, then it is not worth participating. Some indicated they were simply too busy to take the time to vote, and to educate themselves to vote wisely. As Jake explained: ". . . I think that the18-24 year old bracket is a point in our lives when like there's just so much going on. It's like a transition period for all, a lot of us, and uhh, I think that we're ingrained in like, just, we're so kind of like selfish, you know, and we're worried about, add, what's going on with us. And, we, we kind of like, sometimes close ourselves in and we don't really look on the outside of what's going on around us." For many, the act of voting was simply an inconvenience. For Nick, he did not vote because "I have stuff to do." Susan indicated that ". . .people have very busy lives, and they can't drop everything to go vote." In other words, the respondents felt that their time carried more value than the vote.


Writing almost forty years ago, Murray Edelman (1964) highlighted the symbolic uses of politics, arguing there is "no reason to expect that the meanings will be limited to the instrumental functions political forms serve" (p. 2). For him, "Elections are an especially revealing example" of the symbolic uses of politics, "for voting is the only form in which most citizens ever participate directly in government" (p. 2). And, even as educational and social institutions reaffirm the importance of voting, most people are ignorant of the very issues about which they vote; yet, vote they do. Accordingly, Edelman concludes, "So what people get does not depend mainly on their votes" (p. 3). Despite this he is quick to remind us that "It does not follow that election campaigns are unimportant or serve no purpose. It is rather they the functions they serve are different and more varied than the ones we conventionally assume and teach" (p. 3). In mnay ways, it seems as though the elements of voting that our respondents noted are the very ones that Edelman outlined: "[Campaigns] give people a chance to express discontents and enthusiasms, to enjoy a sense of involvement. This is participation in a ritual act, however; only in a minor degree is it participation in policy formation. Like all ritual . . . elections draw attention to common social ties and to the importance and apparent reasonableness of accepting the public policies that are adopted. Without some such device no polity can survive and retain the support or acquiescence of its members" (p. 3).

Recognizing that "political acts are both instrumental and expressive" (Edelman, 1964, p. 12) is central to understanding the complex dynamics that influence youths' decision of whether or not to vote. Instead of focusing (almost exclusively) on convincing potential voters that their votes "count," perhaps more attention needs to be paid to the more ritual elements of voting. If we do, indeed, live in a "civil religion" (Bellah, 1967, p. 1) in which the "pledge functions as a civic prayer" (Hollihan, 2001, p. 45), then it seems logical that voting would be our sacrament. As such, appreciation for the ritual should be highlighted.

In addition to rethinking some of the public service campaigns, other directions for future studies also are possible. As common bonds based on religion become thinner, and common cultural referents become more diverse, it seems as though the very myths and beliefs that hold together the civil religion of democracy may be fraying. Accordingly, the power of the ritual becomes thinner. Ours is not an argument to return to a good old time of monoculture but, instead, is a call for all to recognize that new, powerful symbols need to be developed that recognize the ritual power of politics. The fights for the vote are now fading from memory, and perhaps we should not let them fade so fast.


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