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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Many factors influence political participation

In August 1954, Mrs. Charles F. Story Jr. uses her shoe to tack up posters at campaign headquarters for Al Canwell. Story, the daughter of Gov. Len Jordan of Idaho, joined the Canwell for Congress campaign and planned to work in the headquarters office. According to a 1995 study called “Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics,” political participation is influenced by time, money and civic skills. Canwell lost his election bid.
By Michael Ritter For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: What are two examples of civic participation in the United States?

Civic participation refers to various forms of political engagement. Perhaps the most straightforward is voting. But civic participation is more than just submitting a ballot. For example, the acceptable answers to this question on the U.S. Citizenship Test include not just voting, but also running for office, joining a political party, assisting with a political campaign, joining a civic or community group, contacting and expressing one’s concerns or viewpoints to an elected official, supporting an issue or policy, and writing to a newspaper.

The ability to participate in politics in so many ways is one of the cardinal features of American democracy, yet another important consideration is the extent to which one’s ability to participate is structured by individual as well as state-level institutional factors.

In their 1995 work “Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics,” political scientists Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady developed a theoretical framework of political participation known as the civic voluntarism model. A key premise, supported by extensive empirical testing, is that individual political participation choices are shaped by how many politically relevant resources someone has (factors that have a causal impact on a person’s likelihood of engaging in various forms of political participation).

According to the Verba, Schlozman and Brady, three key politically relevant resources are time, money and civic skills. Individuals with more time, for instance, are more likely to engage in more political activities; those with more money are more likely to make political donations; and people with more civic skills – such as familiarity with public speaking and organizing events – are more likely to attend political meetings.

Take the 2020 election. The 2020 Cooperative Election Study, a nationally representative survey of American adults, gives one a statistical understanding of how likely individuals with more (or less) politically relevant resources were to engage in various forms of political activity. The categories on the survey include voting, making political donations, contacting elected officials, attending local political meetings, helping with a campaign and running for office. Unsurprisingly, most individuals did not engage in all these activities; most people voted (58.1%), followed by making political donations (22.9%), contacting elected officials (18.8%), attending local political meetings (6.5%), helping with a campaign (4.2%) and running for office (2.8%).

How can we use the theory to explain the degree to which individuals engage in these civic activities? For one, time is a finite resource, and this likely constrains the ability of many individuals to engage in more than one or a few civic activities.

Regarding the second resource, money is uniquely relevant for making political donations. In the 2020 election, for example, only 9.9% of individuals at or below the federal poverty line made a political donation, while 27.7% of those above the poverty line donated to politics. On the third resource, although the Cooperative Election Study does not have specific civic skills question, one could posit that individuals with more education are more likely on average to have more civic skills. Civic skills are likely more important for civic activities that require more organization, such as helping a campaign or running for office.

Comparing individuals with at least a four-year college degree to those with a two-year college degree or less, individuals in the higher education category were more likely to work for a campaign (8.5% versus 2.2%) and to run for office (4.4% versus 2.1%). Presumably, individuals with more civil skills feel more able to engage in these forms of civic engagement.

But engaging in civic participation is due to more than individual-level factors.

In my research (with Caroline Tolbert at the University of Iowa), “Accessible Voting: How the States can Help Americans Vote,” we examine whether states with more accessible voting laws make individuals more likely to vote. These laws are in-person early voting (permitting individuals to cast ballots at a polling location before Election Day), no-excuse absentee or mail voting (the former allowing eligible voters to request a mail ballot without needing to provide a reason for not being able to go to a polling place, and the latter dictating that all eligible voters will be sent a mail ballot), and same-day registration .

After accounting for individual factors that also shape propensities to vote, we expect these laws – on average – to make individuals more likely to vote. We find this to be the case, with each of these laws making individuals more likely to vote, compared to states without these voting laws. In the 2020 election, according the Cooperative Election Study, states that had all three of these laws had an average voter turnout level of 59.6%, whereas states with none of these laws were at 57.5%. Having a more accessible set of state voting laws also matters.

Michael Ritter is assistant professor of political science at Washington State University in Pullman.

This article is part of a Spokesman-Review partnership with the Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.