The Research Is In

To Increase Voter Turnout, Start with Children

Can a program targeting social and emotional skills in children increase the odds that they’ll vote as adults? A new study says yes.
A row of voting machines in a classroom, with people inside voting
© Nika

A new study that looked at a more than 20-year-old program designed to build social and emotional skills in young children found a surprising outcome: Participants had a higher likelihood of voting later in life.

In the 1990s, Fast Track was one of the earliest, and largest, programs designed to improve life outcomes for at-risk students. Instead of focusing on academics, the program targeted students’ psychosocial skills—emotion regulation, empathy, friendship skills, self-control, and social problem-solving skills. It was an ambitious program that paved the way for social and emotional learning (SEL) and similar current-day programs.

Starting in kindergarten and continuing throughout elementary school, students participated in group activities like storytelling, playing games, discussions, paired reading, and role-playing, as well as watching films and doing arts and crafts. The program extended outside of the classroom with home visits, parent training groups, tutoring, and friendship groups.

Roughly 900 children in 55 schools were included in the Fast Track program starting in 1991. Half of them were randomly selected for the intervention described above, while the other half served as a control group.

Twenty years after students participated in the program, John Holbein, a researcher at Princeton and the new study’s author, matched Fast Track participants—now adults—to state voter files and found that those in the intervention group voted at a rate 11 to 14 percentage points higher than their peers in the control group, a significant boost considering that get-out-the-vote programs typically boost turnout by only 1 to 4 percentage points.

Why would improving children’s psychosocial skills increase their likelihood of voting? Holbein notes that there are barriers to voting: registering, studying the candidates, finding the location of one’s polling station, and finding the time to get there on what is typically a work day, for example. Increasing children’s capacity for self-control and self-efficacy may help them later overcome these barriers. More interestingly, increasing children’s sense of empathy may make them more likely to decide to vote as adults because they can recognize social problems that may not affect them directly—altruism is a “known predictor of civic participation,” notes Holbein.

While Holbein’s study looked specifically at voter turnout, it’s part of a growing body of research into the lifelong impact that SEL programs can have on students. A 2015 study found that adults who had been in the Fast Track intervention group as children had 30 to 40 percent lower conviction rates for violent and drug-related crimes than their peers. They also had higher education levels and better-paying jobs, according to another study.

A cost-benefit analysis of six other SEL programs found another benefit: On average, every dollar invested in them yielded $11 in long-term benefits through higher educational achievement and improved mental and physical health.

These findings are consistent with what business leaders know: It takes more than just academic skills to be successful. Employers are increasingly looking for workers with non-cognitive skills, naming teamwork, problem-solving, decision-making, and communication as their highest-ranked skills.

So while an organization like Google won’t be looking at how often someone votes when assessing a potential employee, the underlying traits that lead to higher civic participation—empathy, self-control, and self-efficacy—are highly sought-after.