Voter turnout is an important factor—perhaps the most important factor—in ensuring that the democratic process properly represents a population. Despite this, governments around the world are constantly faced with poor turnout. Understanding how individual differences predict this is important to building meaningful interventions.
While it is known that education and intelligence correlate with voter turnout, the precise mechanism of this relation is unknown. The same goes for the well-established relation between genetics and voter turnout (between 40-50%, according to some studies). The authors of a recent study published in Human Behaviour decided to examine the two factors together, to see to what extent genetic influence on voter turnout was mediated by education and intelligence.
The authors also wanted to create a more robust study than previous experiments which have relied on reared-together twin studies (making it difficult to separate nurture from nature) and voter self-reporting, known to be particularly unreliable. Instead, the present study used a large (Danish) genetic dataset comprising roughly 47 000 individuals, in correlation with actual voter registration records.
The results of the study seem to agree with the author’s hypothesis. That is, genotypes that predicted individual differences in education and performance on intelligence tests also predicted differences in voter turnout.
It’s important to note, however, that these relations are correlational in nature (not causal), and that their mechanisms are not yet understood. The authors allude to previous studies, for example, which suggest that the influence of genetics on education attainment may be exerted via personality traits or, indirectly, through the family environment.
Nonetheless, the correlation is clear and robust. Individuals with a greater genetic disposition to obtain a degree of education one standard deviation higher than the mean were 2.66 times more likely to vote in municipal elections. Similarly, scoring one standard deviation higher on intelligence testing was correlated with a 1.85x greater likelihood to vote in national elections.
There are some limitations, including the fact that the data is limited to a single nation. Nonetheless, the study’s large size and its robust correlational measures obtained through actual voter registration make this a particularly significant study statistically speaking, and lay the groundwork for interventions that will help increase voter turnout, buoying the democratic process.
The article, “Genetic predictors of educational attainment and intelligence test performance predict voter turnout”, was authored by Lene Aarøe, Vivek Appadurai, Kasper M. Hansen, Andrew J. Schork, Thomas Werge, Ole Mors, Anders D. Børglum, David M. Hougaard, Merete Nordentoft, Preben B. Mortensen, Wesley Kurt Thompson, Alfonso Buil, Esben Agerbo, and Michael Bang Petersen.