Why Widows and Widowers Don't Vote

The problem of the "lonely non-voter": A new study finds those who have just lost a spouse are less likely to cast a ballot -- though the reasons are unclear.

Mike Segar/Reuters

Does loneliness make people less politically active? For decades, social scientists have questioned the relationship between social isolation and political participation, but it's difficult to quantify. 

A new article in the American Journal of Political Science does so by looking at how the death of a spouse affects voting behavior over time. Using census data, voting records, and information from the ominously named Social Security Death Master File, they measured the voting habits of 5.86 million Californians before and after the 2009-2010 statewide elections. What they found is that widows and widowers were much less likely to vote after their significant other died. Based on their predictions, 11 percent of people who would have voted if their spouse were alive failed to make it to the polls even a year and a half after the death.

Even though research has shown that men are hit harder by the death of a spouse than women, widows saw a greater drop-off in their turnout rate than widowers. The graph below shows the the difference in turnout between men and women, but it also shows overall voting patterns. Right after their spouse dies, people are much less likely to vote. After some time passes, the turnout rate stabilizes at a lower level.

The vertical line at zero represents election week. The lines to the left of zero represent people who lost their spouse after the election, and the lines to the right of zero represent people who lost their spouse before the election. ("Widowhood Effects in Voter Participation," The American Journal of Political Science)

What causes this problem of the "lonely non-voter," as the authors call it? They don't speculate much, but they do offer a few potential explanations. For one thing, nagging helps. Previous research has found that people are more likely to vote when prodded by someone they know, and that someone is most likely to be a spouse.  There's also an argument to be made for Crossfire-style dinner-table discussions: Casual conversations about politics among husbands and wives drive up both peoples' interest in political affairs, social scientists speculate.

The more obvious explanation is simpler: Grief prevents people from doing things they otherwise might. The authors acknowledge that a spouse's death might affect other areas of someone's life, including health, emotional stability, and social life. People might have bigger things to think about than politics on Election Day. 

But obvious as it might be, that's also a provocative idea: People's emotional lives have a big effect on the way they participate in politics. What's unclear is how private sadness gets translated to public life. Does the "lonely non-voter" retreat from political life because she feels disconnected from her community? Social scientist Robert Putnam argued something similar in his book Bowling Alone: A strong sense of social connection makes people more likely to vote and participate in their community life. For many, the death of a spouse is the end of the most important social connection they had in adult life, and it's possible that the breakdown of this connection makes people feel untethered from their community overall. 

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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