FAMILIES, DIVORCE AND VOTER TURNOUT
IN THE US
Julianna Sandell and Eric Plutzer
How large a role does the family play in civic development? This paper examines an
important aspect of family inﬂuence by tracing the impact of divorce on voter turnout
during adolescence. We show that the effect of divorce among white families is large,
depressing turnout by nearly 10 percentage points. Using data from the National
Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, we demonstrate that the impact of divorce
varies by racial group and can rival the impact of parents’ educational attainment,
which is generally regarded as the most important non-political characteristic of one’s
family of origin. We attempt to explain the divorce effect by examining the mediating
impacts of parental voter turnout, active social learning, income loss, child–parent
interaction, residential mobility, and educational attainment.
Key words: turnout; political participation; civic engagement; youth; family; divorce;
education; residential mobility.
How large a role does the family play in civic development? A generation
ago, political socialization scholars were divided on the question. Some, like
Levin (1961) believed the family, or family structure (Clarke, 1973) was
central; others, such as Connell (1972) thought that institutions such as the
schools and mass media had supplanted the family and relegated it to a
marginal role in political socialization.
Since that time, political scientists have shown that family characteristics
have important consequences for many aspects of political behavior. Adults’
current marital status has consequences for presidential voting (Weisberg,
1987) and political participation (Burns, Schlozman, and Verba 2001; Stoker
and Jennings, 1995); and early parenthood depresses turnout (Plutzer,
2002). Parents’ characteristics are important as well for their children. Par-
ents’ education level and political activity are highly predictive of their chil-
Julianna Sandell and Eric Plutzer, 219 Pond Laboratory, Department of Political Science,
Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, 16802-6200.
Political Behavior, Vol. 27, No. 2, June 2005 (
0190-9320/05/0600-0133/0 Ó 2005 Springer ScienceþBusiness Media, Inc.