State Politics and Policy Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 2002): pp. 24–36
Trickle Up Political Socialization: The Impact
of Kids Voting USA on Voter Turnout in Kansas
Amy Linimon, University of Kansas
Mark R. Joslyn, University of Kansas
abst rac t
Can a school curriculum inﬂuence the political socialization of students? And if so,
can such socialization “trickle up” to inﬂuence the political socialization of these
students’ parents? We examine the effects of Kids Voting USA in Kansas to answer
these questions. By the 1996 presidential election, Kids Voting was implemented in
several Kansas counties. Consequently, we are able to compare turnout—and change
in turnout across different elections—in such counties with those that did not adopt
the program. After controlling for a variety of county-level characteristics that are
likely to affect turnout, regression analyses indicate a positive and signiﬁcant con-
tribution of Kids Voting to county turnout, and change in turnout across elections.
We address the practical implications of this study and emphasize its theoretical
contribution to theories of political socialization.
As Americans continue to believe that voter turnout is on the decline
(McDonald and Popkin N.d.), concerned citizens and political organiza-
tions have promoted various programs to increase political participation.
For example, the 1993 federal Motor Voter law was designed to encourage
turnout by removing administrative barriers to voter registration. Several
states have attempted to reduce other costs of voting with early voting pro-
grams (Stein 1998). Still other programs, such as MTV’s “Rock the Vote,”
have focused on mobilizing youth, an increasingly detached segment of the
electorate (Burgess et al. 2000). However, while each of these programs of-
fers a unique approach to stimulating turnout, they all tend to treat political
participation superﬁcially. Simpliﬁed registration processes and short-term
social incentives fail to affect the more fundamental political socialization
that is ultimately responsible for shaping many political behaviors (Jennings
and Niemi 1981; Sears 1990).
In contrast, the goal of Kids Voting USA is to socialize children to politi-
cal affairs early and broadly (Carlin and Wagner 1993; Simon and Merrill
1998). The program targets elementary and secondary students with a special
spring 2002 / state politics and policy quarterly 25
school curriculum that culminates in actual ballot participation in mock
elections. Kids Voting also encourages children to accompany their parents
to the polls on Election Day, where special ballots are provided for students
to cast their votes for president. The designers of the program anticipate that
its beneﬁts will be two-fold (Kids Voting USA 2000). First, children receiving
information about candidates, issues, and the electoral process will be more
politically active as adults. Second, the parents of children participating in
the program will be more likely to vote, since they may escort their children
to the polls on Election Day.
Thus, while Kids Voting may increase voter turnout in the long run—as
children participating in the program turn 18 and begin to vote at a higher
rate than they would have otherwise—it is also possible that adults involved
with the program, whether as parents, educators, or volunteers, will be more
likely to vote in the short run. Kids Voting USA highlights this effect on their
web site, claiming that voter turnout has increased 5–10 percent where the
program has been adopted.1 Several published studies have focused on the
sort of “second chance socialization” that Kids Voting implies, especially
among those of low economic status (McDevitt and Chaffee 1998; Simon
and Merrill 1998). But a direct linkage between Kids Voting and voter turnout
has yet to be established ﬁrmly.
Kids Voting also offers a test of political socialization theory. In sharp
contrast to established top-down models of political socialization, where
children are seen as adopting their parents’ political orientations (Greenstein
1965), Kids Voting suggests a “trickle-up” effect of children on parents. If Kids
Voting does lead to higher turnout among adults, we may need to consider
alternative models of political socialization.
Thus, this article explores the effects of Kids Voting on voter turnout for
both theoretical and practical reasons. Speciﬁcally, we compare turnout for
the 1996 presidential contest in Kansas counties where the program was in
place prior to the election to those where it was not. Our ﬁndings indicate
that indeed Kids Voting increased voter turnout in the short run. Additional
analyses also show that in counties adopting Kids Voting, turnout increased
over time and that ﬁrst time voters in Kids Voting counties voted at a higher
rate than their counterparts in other counties. We conclude with a discus-
sion of the implications of these results for the larger literatures on political
socialization and voting behavior.
kids voting usa
Kids Voting USA is a voter participation program created to address declining
turnout across the nation (Simon and Merrill 1998). Based in Arizona, Kids
26 linimon and joslyn
Voting began in 1988 on a limited basis in six Arizona communities. By 1992,
a national pilot program was initiated in 11 states, and Kids Voting has now
been implemented in 40 states. Kansas has the second largest program in the
country, behind Arizona. In 1996, approximately 165,000 Kansas students
participated in the program.2
The Kids Voting K-12 curriculum emphasizes cooperative learning,
group problem-solving, and hands-on experiences. For example, grade
school students participate in classroom elections and role-playing, while
high school students consider policy alternatives within a structured debate
format. Teachers generally dedicate several classroom hours to Kids Voting
in the fall prior to an election (Simon and Merrill 1998). The program thus
depends heavily on classroom teachers’ participation, but assistance from
school administrators and hundreds of community volunteers on Election
Day is also required. Kids Voting also relies on large corporate donations
for funding. Businesses such as JC Penney, Blockbuster Video, and Price
Waterhouse have not only supported the program ﬁnancially, they have also
lent it credibility through visible public support. Finally, Kids Voting involves
parents. Homework assignments invite children to discuss candidates and
issues with parents and other family members. These assignments are de-
signed to reinforce classroom instruction and to enhance parents’ interest in
electoral politics. Perhaps most importantly, parents are encouraged to take
their children with them to vote at the Kids Voting booth on Election Day. The
booths are located in actual election polling sites, thereby permitting parents
to vote with their children. It is this partnership with schools, community
leaders, businesses, and parents that lead its advocates to suggest that Kids
Voting will not only have an impact on the students’ political socialization,
but also that it will have the important secondary effect of increasing the
political awareness and participation of the adults involved in it.
political socialization and school curriculum
The genesis of much political socialization research has been in concerns
about how to socialize children and adolescents into those political orienta-
tions and behaviors that are valued by adults and society (Sears 1990). Early
on, scholars identiﬁed the family as the primary agent of political socializa-
tion (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee 1954; Campbell et al. 1960; Hyman
1959), although schools were seen as important secondary agents (Almond
and Verba 1963; Greenstein 1965; Easton and Dennis 1969). More recently,
researchers have emphasized the mass media (Atkin and Gantz 1978; Chaffee
and Yang 1990) and political events as inﬂuences on pre-adult political de-
spring 2002 / state politics and policy quarterly 27
velopment (Sears and Valentino 1997).
According to Hess and Torney (1967), the elementary school plays a
key role in shaping beliefs and attitudes about political processes (see also
Almond and Verba 1963). In the earliest grades, children appear to form
supportive opinions toward political affairs (Moore, Lare, and Wagner 1985),
and by grades 4–8, they begin to use voting and representative institutions
when explaining government (Dennis 1973). Greenstein observed (1965,
1), “during the ﬁrst ﬁve years of elementary school, children move from
near—but not complete—ignorance of adult politics to awareness of most
of the conspicuous features of the adult political arena.”
However, while schools generally appear to be instrumental in developing
support for the existing political system, research on the effects of speciﬁc
curricula has produced inconsistent ﬁndings. The most inﬂuential of the ini-
tial research in this area (Langton and Jennings 1968; Riccards 1973; Jennings,
Ehrman, and Niemi 1974) showed that students’ exposure to, for example,
civics courses was essentially irrelevant to their level of political interest,
discussion, and general participatory orientation. Early scholars rarely found
that curriculum innovation of any type inﬂuenced political behavior outside
the classroom (Patrick 1977). In contrast, more recent research suggests a
civics curriculum may contribute to political learning (Niemi and Junn 1998;
Conway, Damico, and Damico 1996; Klassen 1992). For example, Chaffee,
Morduchowicz, and Galperin (1997) found a link between a program using
local newspapers in grades 5 and 6 and students’ exposure to and interest
in opinion expression, tolerance of diversity, and discussion of politics with
family and friends.
Existing studies of Kids Voting tend to support this more recent literature.
Examining public and private schools in San Jose, California, McDevitt and
Chaffee (1998) demonstrated that the Kids Voting curriculum increased
students’ attention to the news media, initiated discussion of political affairs
with friends, and increased expression of opinions on political issues. The
effects of the program were found to transfer to the home, as well. Parents
with children in Kids Voting increased their use of the news media, were more
likely to discuss politics and know more about the candidates, and increased
the frequency of partisan expression. Other studies have linked Kids Voting
to voter turnout. For example, using survey data and voter turnout ﬁgures,
Simon and Merrill (1998) found that adult turnout was higher and student
discussion about elections greater in areas with Kids Voting in the schools,
relative to comparable areas without Kids Voting (see also Chaffee, Pan, and
McLeod 1995). This trickle-up effect of children on parents was especially
prominent in families of lower socio-economic status.
28 linimon and joslyn
While these initial studies of Kids Voting are promising for its support-
ers’ claims, the validity of their conclusions is nevertheless threatened by
confounding the effect of selection with that of socialization (Cook and
Campbell 1979; Langton and Jennings 1968). That is, is the higher voter
turnout in an area caused by its use of Kids Voting, or did that area adopt
Kids Voting because of some heightened interest in politics? Simon and
Merrill (1998) carefully qualiﬁed their conclusions in this respect, noting
several research design limitations that prohibited more deﬁnitive conclu-
sions regarding cause and effect. We consider these issues in greater detail
in the next section.
More generally, Kids Voting poses interesting questions and opportuni-
ties for political socialization scholars. For instance, if former Kids Voting
students voted at higher rates than those who had never been in the program,
this would be evidence of the capacity of school curricula to affect student
behavior, at least in the short-run. We explore this possibility by examining
ﬁrst-time voters in Kansas. Also, if Kids Voting is associated with higher adult
turnout levels overall, we may infer that school curricula not only affected
students, but that children may also have an inﬂuence on their parents’
political socialization. This could lead to a broadening of the established
top-down model of political socialization, in which inﬂuence is assumed to
ﬂow unidirectionally from parent to child. If this is true, schools may serve
as a central socializing agent, activating the child’s political interests while
prompting second-chance socialization of parents (McDevitt and Chaffee
1998). More profoundly, this would be evidence of behavioral, as opposed
to simple attitudinal, change resulting from Kids Voting, behavior that tran-
scends the classroom and impacts the larger community.
data and methods
To examine the relationship between voter turnout and Kids Voting, we ex-
ploited the quasi-experimental condition that existed in Kansas during the
1996 presidential election. By 1996, 16 counties in Kansas, or 15 percent, had
implemented the Kids Voting curriculum in their schools. Given advocates’
expectations for the program, these counties should have, ceteris paribus,
higher voter turnout than those counties without the program. Of course,
separating the potential effects of Kids Voting from other factors inﬂuencing
voter turnout is an important component of this study.3
The dependent variable is the reported level of turnout in each of Kansas’s
105 counties, measured as the number of votes recorded for president in the
1996 general election in each county divided by the county population. By
spring 2002 / state politics and policy quarterly 29
using this proportion, we control for population differences among counties.4
The ofﬁce of the Kansas Secretary of State made available these data.
The presence or absence of a Kids Voting program in a county is the
key independent variable. From Kansas’s Kids Voting USA fact sheet, we
constructed a dummy variable with a value of 1 for counties where the pro-
gram was in place prior to the 1996 presidential election, and 0 otherwise.
Approximately 15 percent of the 105 Kansas counties used Kids Voting in
their schools in 1996 or before.5
In our statistical model, we control for other factors that may inﬂuence
county turnout rate. Most of our controls are individual-level characteristics
aggregated by county. Since age is an important predictor of voter turnout
(Rosenstone and Hansen 1993), the median age for each county is included
in our models. The racial composition of counties is also included. Although
differences in turnout rates between blacks and whites have decreased over
the years, a disparity remains, even after controlling for socioeconomic status
(Abramson and Claggett 1984). Accordingly, we anticipate an inverse rela-
tionship between county turnout and the percentage of minority residents.
Education is also a strong determinant of voting behavior (Wolﬁnger and
Rosenstone 1980), and we model it as measured by the proportion of college-
educated people in a county. Similarly, because higher income is associated
with higher turnout, we include per capita income for each county in our
models. We recognize the potential effects of gender on voting behavior by
including the percentage of men living in a county.6 Finally, we control for
the impact of electoral competition by including the absolute difference be-
tween votes cast for the top two presidential candidates in 1996 in a county
(Franklin and Hirczy de Mino 1998). We expect more competitive counties
to exhibit higher turnout than less competitive ones. In formal terms, our
model is given by the following equation:
Turnout 96 = b0 + b1(KVUSA) + b2(education) + b3(age) + b4(gender)
+ b5 (minorities) + b6(income) + b7(electoral competition) + e
Model 1 in Table 1 presents ordinary least squares (OLS) regression estimates
from our model of voter turnout in Kansas counties in the 1996 presidential
election. In Model 1, the coefﬁcient estimates for education, age, minority
population, and income, are statistically signiﬁcant with the anticipated sign.
More important for our purposes, the presence of Kids Voting programs in
a county’s schools is estimated to be associated with higher voter turnout,
30 linimon and joslyn
and the coefﬁcient is statistically signiﬁcant. Even after controlling for other
factors, turnout in Kids Voting counties was approximately 2.1 percent higher
than in non-Kids Voting counties.7
Thus, this ﬁrst cut at the data supports the hypothesis that Kids Voting
mobilizes adult voters. However, recall that selection problems in previous
research resulted in the inability to conclude whether variation in turnout
was a result of Kids Voting or rather that existing differences among regions
led to the adoption of the program in the ﬁrst place. We address this issue
by controlling for a county’s past voter turnout for three reasons. First, this
allows us to control for any county-level characteristics that could affect
turnout but that were left out of our original model. Second, as a purely
probabilistic matter, high levels of county turnout are unlikely to be followed
by even higher turnout levels. Including a pre-1996 county turnout measure
in our model controls for this tendency of regression toward the mean (Cook
and Campbell 1979; Campbell and Kenny 1999). Third, and most important,
the presence of prior county turnout levels in the model fundamentally alters
the interpretation of the estimated relationships in a manner consistent with
our goal of determining causality. By including a county’s prior turnout in
the model, the coefﬁcients of the other independent variables will indicate
their impact on the change in county turnout between past elections and
Table 1. Kids Voting and Turnout in Kansas Counties—1996 Presidential Election
Independent Variables Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
Kids Voting .021** .020** .082*
(.011) (.009) (.036)
Prior turnout — .386* —
Education .258* .191** .629**
(.105) (.095) (.325)
Age .009* .007* .012
(.001) (.001) (.007)
Gender –.135 –.020 2.405**
(.337) (.306) (1.31)
Minority –.480* –.352* –.222
(.092) (.087) (.271)
Income .000003* .000001** .000
(.000) (.000) (.000)
Electoral competition –.000 –.000 .000
(.008) (.000) (.000)
Constant .072 –.032 –1.129
(.182) (.165) (.797)
R2 .73 .78 .49
N 105 105 28
*p < .01, ** p < .05 one-tail tests. OLS estimates. Standard errors in parentheses.
spring 2002 / state politics and policy quarterly 31
the 1996 election (Finkel 1995). This provides a conservative, yet appropri-
ate, test for the effect of our key explanatory variable and gives leverage on
the critical issue of causality by allowing us to compare change in turnout
within counties across time, in addition to the cross-sectional across-county
comparison that our ﬁrst model provided.8 Turnout for the 1992, 1988, and
1984 presidential elections was averaged for each county to serve as our
measure of prior turnout.9
Model 2 in Table 1 presents OLS estimates for the voter turnout change
model. These estimates show that Kids Voting enhanced a county’s growth
in turnout in 1996. This estimate indicates that turnout change was 2.0
percent higher in Kids Voting counties than in non-Kids Voting counties.
Importantly, this effect emerges even after controlling for the substantial
impact of prior turnout, as well as for other independent variables.
In our ﬁnal model, we explore how having participated in Kids Voting
affected ﬁrst-time voters. The Kansas Secretary of State provided us with
the percentage of registered 18–year-olds who voted in 1996, but only in 28
counties. Fortunately, 12 of these 28 counties adopted Kids Voting prior to
1996. Although not from an ideal research design, these data make possible
a tentative comparison of voting rates among 18–year-olds in Kids Voting
counties versus non-Kids Voting counties.10 Overall, the average turnout in
1996 for 18–year-olds was 59 percent in Kids Voting counties and 53 percent
in the remaining counties in this sample. Model 3 in Table 1 examines this
relationship in a multivariate context. After accounting for key county-level
characteristics, this difference is statistically signiﬁcant, with higher turnout
for 18–year-olds in Kids Voting counties. Although we cannot assess causality
with these data, they are clearly suggestive of a direct effect of Kids Voting
on 18–year-old’s voting behavior.
Our analyses have demonstrated that Kids Voting USA increases political
participation. After controlling for relevant county-level demographics and
electoral characteristics, we have shown that Kids Voting programs enhance
county-level voter turnout (Model 1). Not only did the Kansas counties in
our data set that had Kids Voting have higher turnout than those that did not,
but Kids Voting also accelerated the change in turnout. Turnout increased
in 1996 disproportionately in those counties that had implemented Kids
Voting (Model 2). Finally, our results suggest that in Kids Voting counties,
18–year-olds facing their ﬁrst presidential vote in 1996 participated in greater
numbers than their counterparts in non-Kids Voting counties. While these
32 linimon and joslyn
ﬁndings may not be surprising in light of the stated intentions of Kids Vot-
ing, our study represents the ﬁrst hard evidence of the program’s behavioral
impact. The trickle-up effect of Kids Voting on the political participation of
parents demonstrated by prior survey research (McDevitt and Chaffee 1998)
is supported by our county-level analyses of voter turnout, as is the more
direct effect on ﬁrst-time voters.
Our ﬁndings have several practical implications. While caution in gen-
eralizing these results beyond the Kansas experience is important, they are
nevertheless encouraging for proponents of Kids Voting and other programs
aimed at engaging the public politically (Johnson, Hays, and Hays 1998).
Policymakers should consider the potential of programs of this sort for in-
creasing a community’s stock of social capital (Putnam 1995). The partici-
pation of hundreds of community volunteers, school personnel, students,
and parents represents a considerable social network to address a range of
community needs, political or otherwise. While the structure of electoral
processes undoubtedly have a crucial impact on voter turnout, our ﬁndings
suggest that programs targeted at educating the public about such rules
are also important determinants of Election Day behavior (Burgess et al.
Perhaps more important, and surprising, are the implications of our
analyses for theories of political socialization. The apparent success of Kids
Voting USA invites rethinking of common assumptions about political so-
cialization. The fact that parents are mobilized by their children’s involvement
suggests that scholars should look more closely at the socialization inﬂuences
between parents and children. After decades of careful research documenting
the family’s dominance in shaping the political character of the young (Sears
1990), scholars should begin to probe the contribution of children to politi-
cal socialization within the family. The political values of older generations
will continue to be passed to younger generations, but children may renew
or spark parents’ interests in political affairs. Just as parents are viewed as
“middlepersons” in political socialization (Beck and Jennings 1972), having
received the political legacy of their own parents and then passing it on to
their children, the political experiences of children may reinforce or trigger
parents’ political motivations. The long-standing emphasis on top-down
models of political socialization has undoubtedly caused many researchers
to neglect this possibility (McDevitt and Chaffee 1998).
The disappointing results of many early studies of school-driven political
socialization discouraged educators from using their curricula to prepare
students to become active citizens in the larger democratic society. Our results
contradict this initial pessimism and support the recent literature that sug-
spring 2002 / state politics and policy quarterly 33
gests that school curricula can inﬂuence political socialization. Indeed, our
ﬁndings support a hopeful view of educational innovation in encouraging
a politically active, engaged, and informed citizenry.
1. Kids Voting USA Online: http://kidsvotingusa.org/itworks.html
2. Kids Voting Kansas Online: http://kidsvotingkansas.org
3. Ideally, we would test these hypotheses with individual-level data. However, beyond
the survey evidence presented in Simon and Merrill (1998), we are unaware of any indi-
vidual-level data on the Kids Voting program. While we conduct our inquiry at a fairly low
level of aggregation, the county, we acknowledge the ecological inference issues involved
(King 1997). In this regard, we are careful to present our design and ﬁndings in the proper
context, referring to the county (as opposed to individuals within the county) as our unit
4. We measure turnout as the total votes cast in a county divided by the county’s 1990
population for several practical reasons. First, we were unable to obtain contemporary
data on the number of adults eligible to vote by county to use as the denominator in our
measure. The number of registered voters in each county was available, but inspection of
these data revealed signiﬁcant problems. For example, several of the resulting proportions
were greater than one, indicating a greater number of votes cast than the number of vot-
ers registered in the county. (Note that Kansas does not have same day registration). The
major bias likely to emerge from using the 1990 county population as the denominator
for our measure is that signiﬁcantly more youthful counties would show a lower turnout
rate than those without as many children. We attempt to address this by controlling for
median age in the county in our statistical models. Our measure would also be biased
if the counties had widely different rates of population change from 1990–96. However,
we have no evidence to suggest this.
5. Admittedly, this is a crude indicator of the extent of program use in a county. Kids
Voting reports statistics on the number of students “voting” on Election Day in each state,
but it does not report these ﬁgures at the county level. While the number of students
participating in Kids Voting in a county would be preferable to our dichotomous measure,
our measure is quite conservative and does not bias our analyses in favor of ﬁnding a
positive effect for the program.
6. County data for education, age, minorities, income, and gender were taken from the
Kansas Statistical Abstract (Helyar 1998).
7. We tested for heteroskedasticity with a visual inspection of residuals against several
of the independent variables and the Cook-Weisberg test. Neither approach indicated
the presence of a heteroskedastic disturbance.
8. When we use a difference in turnout measure as the dependent variable, while in-
cluding prior turnout as an independent variable, the substantive coefﬁcient estimates
are identical to those reported in Model 2, but the variance accounted for by the model is
reduced by approximately 20 points. The greater predictive power in the reported model
accrues entirely because of the consistency between the average of previous turnout
measures and the 1996 turnout.
9. We averaged three previous elections to measure prior turnout mainly to avoid bias
34 linimon and joslyn
due to the idiosyncrasies of a given national election. We are grateful to an anonymous
referee for bringing this point to our attention. However, conclusions drawn on the effect
of Kids Voting on turnout remain virtually the same when analyses of turnout change
are conducted separately for each of these three election years.
10. The 28 counties used in our analyses represented data from a prior work by the
authors (unpublished and quite informal analyses requested from the Secretary of State)
and were thus readily available upon request. Similar data for every county was more
difﬁcult to obtain and beyond our resources.
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