The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A political scientist has discovered a surprising way to increase voter turnout. It starts in childhood.


Almost one in two of the United States’ voting-age population failed to cast their ballot in last November’s presidential elections, putting the United States far behind almost all other developed democracies around the world in voter turnout.

Many proposals have been offered to tackle this embarrassing problem: Hold elections on weekends. Make Election Day a national holiday. Get rid of voter ID laws. Roll out automatic voter registration.

Now, a political scientist is offering another solution: Teach kids social skills.

That’s the finding from a recently published study by John Holbein, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University

In his research, Holbein set out to answer two broad questions. First, given that most get-out-the-vote initiatives targeting adults have relatively small effects, would reorienting efforts toward childhood be effective? And second, are social skills important in determining voter participation?

These are important questions, Holbein said in an interview, because “voting is a foundational act of democracy.”

“If there’s inequality in voting, there’s probably going to be inequality in policies that are implemented,” he said.

Using 20 years’ worth of data from an intervention program called Fast Track, which was designed to help at-risk children develop social skills with the aim of improving their future general well-being, Holbein was able to find a causal connection between children who developed certain social skills early on and a greater likelihood of voting later on in life.

The Fast Track program, which started in 1992, targeted 891 kids. Half were placed in the control group, and half were placed in the treatment group. Those in the treatment group received special training on social skills, including skills for emotional understanding and communication, friendship, self-control and social problem-solving.

Matching data from Fast Track participants to state voter files, Holbein found that children who received social skills training were noticeably more likely to vote. Those who were assigned to the Fast Track program in childhood voted at a rate 6.6 percent higher than those in the control group. When factors such as race, gender, age and socioeconomic status were taken into account, the difference in voter turnout rose to 7.3 percent above the control group.

There are several reasons why social skills may increase political participation, according to Holbein.

First, the ability to empathize with others and recognize social problems can increase an individual’s motivation to participate in politics.

Second, because voting comes with various hurdles — registering to vote, scheduling time to locate and travel to vote, and learning about candidates and issues, for example — individuals who have self-control, grit and emotion regulation would be better positioned to follow through on their intentions to vote.

And third, having social skills may make it less likely for individuals to face negative and demobilizing life events that make them ineligible or unable to vote.

These findings have important policy implications, Holbein said.

The current model of civics education in schools based on “a dry, boring presentation of facts about politics and government” and focused mainly on giving raw knowledge is not enough to produce actively engaged citizens, Holbein said.

What’s needed, instead, are school programs that promote general social skills. One way to do this, he said, is getting children involved in volunteering programs that provide hands-on civic experiences, which increase levels of self-control and empathy and in turn drive higher political participation in adulthood.

The country’s low voter participation rate is “really dismal and depressing, but one of the things that comes out of my study is that it doesn’t have to be that way,” Holbein said. “If you start early … that can have a big, meaningful impact on whether they vote later in life. And so it’s not all gloom and doom.”