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Sigrid Roßteutscher

Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, Germany
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“Unequal Turnout among First-Time Voters: The Role of Political Efficacy Beliefs”

Most established democracies are troubled by declining and increasingly unequal voter turnout. Time and again, we observe that individuals with lower education, lower income, and lower professional status turn out the least. This turnout gap is particularly large among younger voters – with severe implications for the future of democratic representation, legitimacy, and quality. In fact, as the turnout gap between advantaged and disadvantaged voters is much larger among younger citizens, the declining turnout rates we witness at present across established democracies are predominantly caused by worryingly low turnout rates among young voters from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This article analyses the role of political efficacy beliefs in unequal turnout among first-time voters. Internal efficacy beliefs are well known to be a strong predictor of turnout, and they are known to be lower among individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. Building upon this, we argue that internal political efficacy beliefs are particularly important for turnout among first-time voters from disadvantaged backgrounds as they lack alternative mobilizing factors: While adolescents from more advantaged backgrounds typically discuss politics more often with their parents, see them turn out, and have more politically active networks, those from more disadvantaged homes lack such mobilizing resources. In addition, due to a lack of familiarity with the electoral system and a lower norm of turnout, first-time voters from disadvantaged backgrounds also face higher costs of first-time voting, rendering political efficacy beliefs all the more relevant for their first-time turnout. Furthermore, we argue that first-time turnout is a more important predictor of participation in the subsequent election among young voters from disadvantaged backgrounds. While individuals from more advantaged backgrounds have a high turnout likelihood regardless of their participation in the first election, those from less advantaged backgrounds will particularly profit from successful first-time turnout. This is, we argue, because first-time turnout increases internal political efficacy beliefs among voters from disadvantaged backgrounds and simultaneously decreases their perceived costs of voting, setting them on the track to become habitual voters.

We empirically test these arguments using original longitudinal data on first-time voters from three German Federal States (Bundesländer). Overall, our results support this argument: Political efficacy beliefs are a particularly stronger predictor of first-time turnout, and first-time turnout a stronger predictor of second turnout among young voters from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to those from more advantaged backgrounds. This highlights the relevance of political efficacy beliefs in the (re-)production of persisting political inequality.