The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Most Democratic of Institutions

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

When elections do not yield results they want, pundits lament that not enough Americans bother to vote; they also call for changes in registration and voting procedures that will allegedly ensure greater political participation. Yet a study that quantifies links between family structure and voting behavior suggests that if they really want to enhance democracy, the pundits would promote greater participation in the most democratic of institutions, marriage.

Nicholas Wolfinger of the University of Utah and Raymond Wolfinger of the University of California (Berkeley) examine data from the 2000 Voting and Registration Supplement of the Current Population Survey, which provides information on the voting of 73,541 citizens in 2000. The data show that married people voted in disproportionately higher numbers (74 percent of them voted in 2000) than their percentage of the adult population (58 percent). They accounted for 65 percent of all ballots cast. In contrast, only 51 percent of never-married people got out to the polls, as did 60 percent of divorced people and 52 percent of separated people.

In regressions that predict probabilities of voting by family structure, the researchers found that differences by family structure, which they claim are “dramatic,” are all statistically significant. In these tests, turnout rates for married parents with children (70 percent) and married citizens without children (78 percent) are the highest of any family type. The lowest turnout rate is among never-married parents (44 percent), of which 86 percent are women. The rate for never-married adults without children (52 percent) is not dramatically higher than their childless peers.

In multivariate tests that controlled for age, residential mobility, education, sex, employment, income, and race, the study found that three factors (age, education, and mobility) account for much of the family-structure effects in voter turnout but that “married citizens continue to be the turnout leaders.” The key difference in this model is that never-married citizens vote in higher rates than do previously married-citizens (separated, divorced, and widowed), leading the authors to speculate, “Some people never recover from the loss of a spouse.” But the authors also note that the jump in voter turnout among never-married parents (from 44 to 68 percent) in this model can be accounted for by age, education, and mobility.

What might explain the “definitive” fact that married citizens are more likely to vote even when controlling for demographic factors? The two sociologists suggest one possible advantage: that one spouse performs functions for the other that the pundits would rather, in effect, see outsourced or socialized to public entities: reminding the other to register, obtaining absentee ballots if needed, learning where to vote, and reminding the other to vote. This may all be true, but given the extent to which they bear and raise more children, earn more money, and pay more taxes than their unmarried peers, no one should be surprised that marriage makes for better citizenship.

(Nicholas H. Wolfinger and Raymond E. Wolfinger, “Family Structure and Voter Turnout,” Social Forces 86.4 [June 2008]: 1513-28.)