The Decision Tree

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Why Do Old People Vote More?

It may not be a question of civic duty.

Everyone knows that older people are the most reliable voters. But no one knows why.

In the united states, where voting is optional, the people who vote get to influence the country's direction. And the groups who vote more reliably tend to get their interests served by the government. And in this country, that's the elderly. Americans over 60 years old are 15 percent more likely to be registered to vote than those between 18 to 30. And registration strongly predicts voting - 90 percent of registered voters voted in 2008, and obviously none of the non-registered voters voted.

Why else would Social Security, which hands out money to Americans over 65, be called the third rail of American Politics? Older voters tend to be more conservative than the population, meaning that the conservative agenda is disproportionately weighted on the national political stage. Whether this is good or bad depends on your political attitude, but it seems to be anti-democratic in practice, if not in intent.

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Given this bias, it's strange that we don't know why the elderly are more likely to vote. In my own totally unscientific survey, there is a sense that older people were raised in an era of greater civic virtue, when children loved the flag and the president instead of ipods and Spongebob. But people always think civic virtue is declining, ever since ancient Greece at least. Other respondents suggest the elderly have more free time. Political scientists have speculated that the elderly have more "social capital" or "civic resources."

A new study by Ansolabehre, Hersh, and Shepsle suggests the answer is much simpler. They point out two facts. First, Americans are mobile. Second, when you move to a new place, you have to re-register to vote. Since registering to vote is never first on people's list of things to do, it tends to get put off. But once you are registered, you stay registered.

This type of one way effect on behavior is known to psychologists as a ratchet. And it means the longer you have lived in one place, the more likely you are to be registered there. And the older you are, the more likely you are to have been in your place for a while. This mathematical fact is true if moving occurs at random times, without regard to age. Since younger people are more mobile than older people, the effect is even stronger.

That's it. Those assumptions alone provide a remarkably close prediction for actual registration levels. The authors obtained an amazing dataset - the registration information for all Americans - and analyzed it to confirm their hypothesis. This means that older people are no more civic than young people. It means that today's youth aren't particularly self-centered, or lazy, or cynical. We just haven't gotten around to registering yet. And we're not lazier: When older people move, they procrastinate just as much as we do.

These results are part of a bigger trend of results suggesting that the small things have big - even national political -  consequences. (See Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's recent book, Nudge.)

Oh and before you ask. I moved to New York State in June. I haven't registered to vote here yet. When I moved to North Carolina, it took me 3 years to get registered. 

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Movers, Stayers, and Registration: Why Age Is Correlated with Registration in the U.S.

Stephen Ansolabehere, Eitan Hersh, and Kenneth Shepsle

Working paper here.

Monkey Cage article.

Ben Hayden, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester.

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