Government Research Intern: Kelly Depew

Title: The Relationship Between Educational Achievement and Voter Turnout Rates

Author: Kelly Depew


Many have speculated on the relationship between education and civic participation; some have argued that a more educated an electorate will be more civically involved, while others think that the more citizens are knowledgeable about the complexities of American politics, the more cynical and dissuaded they will be from partaking in democracy. So which is right? Or more specifically, which is more likely to have an overarching effect on society as a whole?

This research project aimed to identify a relationship between educational achievement and voter turnout rates by examining, state-by-state, 30 years of voting history and 10 years of college entrance exam performance. The results revealed that there are noticeable similarities among states that on average vote at higher rates and more often produce students who succeed academically, as well as a correlation between voter turnout rates and educational achievement of .55.

On the whole, this study proved that there is a positive relationship between education quality and civic participation. Though there are many variables that contribute to a state’s ability to provide “quality” education to its citizens, and even more variables that influence whether certain populations will participate in democracy, I aim to eventually account for those variables, and perhaps discover a causal relationship between the two. Assuredly this positive relationship will be only a first step in arguing the case that a better educated electorate leads to a more efficient democratic process.

Dr. Michael McDonald of the George Mason University Department of Public and International Affairs, as part of the United States Elections Project, provided the figures for this study, which include all presidential and mid-term elections beginning in 1980 to 2012. Comparing state voter participation can be clouded by variations in a state’s involvement in presidential election years and midterm election years; some states may turn out highly in presidential elections, but comparatively may turnout in lower rates in midterm election years. The value selected to measure voter participation was the Voting Age Population Rate, which indicates the percentage of the voting age population that exercised their voting right for each year from 1980 to 2012. The average taken across time provides a measure that shows overall participation for each state.

The NCHEMS Information Center for Higher Education Policymaking and Analysis provided “Number of ACT Scores 25 and Higher and SAT Scores 1780 and Higher (80th Percentile)- Per 1,000 High School Graduates” in 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2007 for each state, and was selected as the Educational Achievement Measure. Comparing educational quality across states is difficult; the data for education funding and efficiency for each state is not uniformly gathered or reported, at least not for the length of time that should be examined. It is possible, however, to consider which states more often produce high-performing high school graduates that, although self-selected, presumably go on to attend college. Judging educational achievement through these college-entrance exams is a way to examine the overall culmination of the quality of education in a state, and although is a specialized type of data set, it can be argued that when it comes to quantifying the quality of education, the pursuit of college-level education should be a standard by which we measure a state’s educational quality.

In addition to the correlation yielded, a look at average state performance in both educational quality and voter turnout revealed that states that rank highly on a national scale in education consequently rank highly in voter turnout rates. Additionally, states that rank poorly on a national scale in education consequently rank poorly in voter turnout rates.