Who Votes? Undergraduate Ross Baird Looks Abroad and Close to Home to Find Answers

Nov. 7, 2006 -- In a nation founded on liberty and democracy, political participation has historically defined the American experience. Yet in the past few decades, the rates of civic engagement in politics have seemed to be on a consistent nosedive — especially among the young voting population. In order to adequately study these participation trends, Ross Baird (Government, Foreign Affairs ’07) decided that he needed a comparison.

Traveling from the mountain ranges of Croatia to the public squares of Italy, Baird has analyzed the ways in which the American voting experience differs from that of several democratic political systems abroad, giving him a broader understanding of what makes citizens and young voters engage politically.

“In most cases, the decision whether to vote comes down to a matter of relevance,” Baird says. “In Italy, Austria, Croatia and England, politics seem to matter more than in parts of the United States.”

That interest stems from the open nature of political discussion in these foreign countries, says Baird, as opposed to the ways that American citizens confront their political system.

“Most Americans get political news from TV or the newspaper a couple times a day, but politics is usually a taboo subject in conversation,” he says. Among young people as a whole, political interest is even more elusive. In interviewing individuals his own age who are politically active, Baird discovered that about 95 percent of these young Americans were voting only due to the early encouragement of parents or teachers.

His journey, funded by a David A. Harrison III undergraduate research grant, helped Baird formulate ideas about how the political structures of each country contribute to its high or low levels of civic participation.

For example, unlike the typical American election in which citizens are given a choice between two major political groups, Italy has 174 political parties, which makes the voting process in Italian elections more competitive, says Baird. And since other democratic systems, such as Croatia, have just recently modernized, citizens may approach their political choices with newfound optimism.

By capitalizing on his experiences overseas, Baird was equipped with the knowledge he needed to turn back to the United States and delve into its political system. As a part of his final thesis project in the politics honors program, he narrowed his focus in order to view trends in civic participation through the lens of his home state, Georgia. Baird and Davis Zaunbrecher (College ’09) stopped at a variety of public places, including minor league baseball games, gas stations and pro wrestling matches, to ask approximately 1,600 people in most of Georgia’s 159 counties about their political preferences.

These journeys have led Baird to different conclusions, both about American politics overall and localized politics as a way of life.

“In some very rural counties in Georgia, people told me that they consider their county an independent state,” Baird says. “It doesn’t really matter who is president of the United States, but you bet they’ll show up to vote for county sheriff.”

By looking at three separate categories — consistent voters, race-specific voters (for example, citizens who will only vote in presidential elections) and nonvoters — Baird is analyzing patterns and characteristics among these citizens to better understand why they chose to engage in the political system in different ways.

“When we debate politics, we usually discuss who’s going to win or what issues are on the table,” Baird says. “We don’t usually discuss people’s decisions just to show up.”

His findings have led him to conclude that corruption, negative campaigning and pessimism greatly deter civic engagement. Areas he will continue to explore are whether voters are more influenced by party ideology or by the candidates themselves and whether moral issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, are as politically salient as politicians claim.

-- By Amber Davis