Academic journal article Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy

Changing Attitudes about Democratic Participation through a Catalytic Experience

Academic journal article Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy

Changing Attitudes about Democratic Participation through a Catalytic Experience

Article excerpt


The United States has a long history of democratic participation. As Alexis de Tocqueville stated, "[i]n some countries the inhabitants seem unwilling to avail themselves of the political privileges which the law gives them; . . . but if an American were condemned to confine his activity to his own affairs, he would be robbed of one-half of his existence . . . ."1

But, even within this deep tradition of political involvement, studies show a downward trend in participation.2 Only a small fraction of eligible voters actually vote, and even fewer citizens engage in other types of political participation, such as writing their congressman, volunteering on a campaign, or running for office.3 As a nation, only 36.1% of all eligible voters participated in the 2014 general election, the lowest turnout rate since 1942.4

Current low levels of democratic participation in the United States, specifically as measured by voting, indicate a general trend where Americans appear to be less engaged. If citizens decline such a minimal task as voting, what chance is there that they will engage in public debate, volunteer to be an election judge, or even run for office?

This Article examines democratic participation, specifically through the lens of voter turnout. By investigating what influences democratic participation, this Article will examine why Americans choose to, or choose not to, participate. Essentially, this Article argues that providing an initial opportunity for democratic participation will change attitudes about democratic participation, serving as a catalytic experience and encouraging future democratic engagement.

To test this hypothesis-whether a catalytic opportunity for democratic participation changes attitudes about future engagement-researchers hired exit poll workers to administer an exit poll survey during the April 2015 Chicago run-off municipal election. Study participants completed a survey5 prior to and after6 administering the exit poll. The Pre-Election Day survey and Post-Election Day survey asked about attitudes and behaviors related to democratic participation. The changes, or lack thereof, were examined to determine how attitudes shifted. Ultimately, this study indicates that participating in a catalytic experience can influence an individual's attitudes regarding federal, state, and city governments, in addition to an individual's plans to volunteer with political campaigns and intentions to engage civically in the future.

Part I defines democratic participation and explains why it matters. Part II explores what influences democratic participation, mostly through the lens of voting. Part III describes the empirical study, including the context, research design, methods, and results. It also analyzes the findings, extrapolating possible conclusions. Part IV considers policy and legal implications of the research outcomes. The final part concludes.


This Part defines democratic participation and explores whether it matters. This discussion will create a foundation for exploring what influences democratic participation.

A. Democratic Participation, Defined

Democratic participation, as defined by Sidney Verba and Norman H. Nie in their seminal 1972 study, Participation in America, is "those activities by private citizens that are more or less directly aimed at influencing the selection of governmental personnel and/or the actions they take."7 Verba and Nie provide four modes of democratic participation: 1) voting, 2) campaign activity, 3) cooperative activity, and 4) citizeninitiated contacts.8

Voting is narrowly confined to electoral voting conducted in a voting booth.9 Much of this Article will use this mode to explore what influences democratic participation.10 Campaign activity involves participating in political campaigns through canvassing, persuading others to vote for the candidate, contributing to a campaign, and other campaign-related activities. …

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