William R. Hobbs: The Lonely Nonvoter– Widowhood Effects in Voter Participation

The article, “Widowhood Effects in Voter Participation,” by William R. Hobbs, Nicholas A. Christakis, and James H. Fowler, appears in the January 2014 AJPS. Will Hobbs summarizes the content as follows:

Social scientists conventionally attribute relatively low voter turnout among widows to maladaptation and poor general health. Here, we suggest a new “lonely non-voter” explanation. Widows who become socially-disconnected from their deceased partner are affected by both: 1) the absence of a voting partner (not having anyone), and 2) the absence of a specific, mobilizing partner (not having someone’s influence).

We support this argument by measuring weekly changes in turnout in the year and a half before and after the death of a spouse for three California statewide non-presidential elections. We compare sixty thousand widow(er)s to very similar married individuals with identical voting histories who have not experienced a death to estimate how many widowed people would have voted if their spouse had still been alive. We find that, after turnout rates stabilize at three months into widowhood, around eleven percent of widowed electors who would have voted no longer turn out to vote after the loss of their spouse. This change from married to widowed turnout is quick and indefinite.

A common, reflexive response to this finding is that depression is the driving force, or fundamental cause, behind all of this disengagement. However, we show that the change in turnout is specific to the marriage–individuals who previously voted less than their spouse experience a much larger decline in turnout (close to fifteen percentage points, or twenty percent of the expected turnout) and individuals who previously voted more experience a much smaller decline (five percentage points, or six percent of the expected turnout). Even more, widowed people living with others (at least one additional person, and, here, probably adult children or other young relatives who would be similar to the spouse who died) gradually return to their previous turnout rate, while those living alone do not. If depression and maladaptation are the proximate causes of low turnout among widows, then isolation predicts sustained depression and maladaptation, and the nature of this isolation changes their effects.

We argue that social influence and social support provide an improved, or at least more straightforward, explanation for these changes in turnout behavior and perhaps changes in civic engagement more generally.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.