Older People and Political Engagement: From Avid Voters to 'Cooled-Out Marks'

By Binstock, Robert H. | Generations, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Older People and Political Engagement: From Avid Voters to 'Cooled-Out Marks'


Binstock, Robert H., Generations


The dynamics of 'senior citizenship.'

There is little doubt that older Americans are highly engaged in political participation. They vote, contribute to and work in political campaigns, contact public officials, serve on local public advisory boards and councils on aging. They also participate in political processes created especially for them, such as the White House Conferences on Aging, that have been convened periodically years in Washington, D.C., and, at the state level, "silverhaired legislatures." In addition, millions of them belong to mass-membership organizations that engage in political activity. As the mit political scientist Andrea Campbell has observed, older people "are indeed senior citizens, fully incorporated into social and political citizenship" (Campbell, 2003, p. 65).

Voting

Voting is the type of political activity by older people that is most amenable to nationwide, ongoing documentation (through U.S. Census data and election exit polls). It is also the arena of activity that is most widely publicized. As elections approach, especially presidential elections, journalists, pollsters, and campaign strategists mobilize a perennial cliché: Senior voters are a key battleground in this election.

One reason for this cliché is that older people are a readily identifiable program constituency that has been created by old-age public policies such as Social Security and Medicare. Therefore, seniors are a tempting campaign target, particularly because they are potentially swing voters, not committed heavily as a bloc to either the Democratic or the Republican party.

Participation rates of older people. A second reason that older people are viewed as an important electoral target is that they turn out to vote at a higher rate than do members of other age groups. As Table 1 shows, in the past seven U.S. presidential elections, individuals age 65 and older voted at a substantially higher rate than those in the 18-24 and 25-44 age groups, and (except in 1980 and 1984) as high as or higher than the 45-64 age group. The same patterns of age-group turnouts have occurred in the past seven congressional elections.

As a consequence of their comparatively high voting rate, for some thirty years older Americans have constituted a larger share of those who actually vote than the percentage of the voting-age population that they constitute. For instance, in the 2004 presidential election, voters age 65 and older cast 19 percent of the votes, even though they were only 16 percent of the voting-age population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005).

Reasons for high participation. Why do older people vote at a higher rate than younger people? This question is particularly difficult to answer because the various age groups are composed of different birth cohorts over time, and the political context of each election is different. Moreover, although the connection between age and voting participation has been investigated a great deal, the reasons for the relationship remain a source of controversy.

One contributing factor is age-group differences in voting registration, an essential precursor to voting. Table 2 shows that in the presidential elections from 1980 to 2004, the rate of registration among people age 65 and older was consistently the highest among age groups, and substantially higher than the youngest groups.

A two-stage study of voter registration and turnout in national elections (Timpone, 1998) found that increased age (from age 18 to 88) is robustly associated with being registered (as generally reflected in Table 2). The study also found that age was the second most influential factor (among twenty-one variables) in distinguishing between registrants and nonregistrants. Another aging-related factor, length of residence in one's home, also had a substantial influence on registration.

The theory that individuals who are comparatively weË-informed about politics and public affairs are more likely to register and vote suggests an additional factor that may contribute to the fact that rates of voting participation are highest among older people. …

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