Nov. 1, 2008 -- Early voting and absentee ballots are a hot topic this political season, but scientists say some folks are laying the groundwork for voting really early -- say from kindergarten.
"Little is known about the association between measured intelligence and how people participate in democratic processes," says a current Intelligence journal study led by Ian Deary of Scotland's University of Edinburgh, in a wee bit of an understatement. "There is debate about the importance of intelligence in relation to whether people vote in elections, and there is currently little information on how people with different levels of intelligence choose to vote in elections," according to the report.
To tackle the question, Deary and colleagues looked at a United Kingdom research project started in 1970 and continuing today that tracks about 17,200 people born that year. The researchers check up on them every few years and included intelligence tests at age 5 and 10, as well as voting affiliation and occupation at age 34.
Running through the numbers, Deary and colleagues found that smarter folks voted more often, regardless of their occupation. Average IQ scores are 100 and for every 15 IQ points above average, a study participant was 38% more likely than average to have voted in the United Kingdom's 2001 election, for example. "People who took part in a political meeting or rally in the last year, those who took part in a public demonstration, those who signed a petition, and those who were fairly or very interested in politics had higher mean intelligence test scores at age 10," the authors also found.
But how did they vote? This was a hot question after recent U.S. national elections, where a chart -- bogus according to Snopes.com -- linking state IQ results to voting patterns proliferated on the Internet. In 2000, Seth Hauser of the University of Michigan suggested in the journal Social Science Research that "researchers will lose little if they ignore cognitive ability as a direct causal factor when formulating models of civic participation.? But more recently, researchers such as Orla Doyle of Ireland's University College Dublin have suggested otherwise.
"Childhood intelligence is associated with how and how much people engage in the democratic processes, and with support for political ideologies that are based on ecological sustainability and social liberalism," conclude the Intelligence study authors. For example, voters were 32% more likely to vote for the UK's more left-wing Liberal party over the Conservative party for every 15 IQ points they scored above average as children. They were more likely to be tree-huggers too, voting more often for environment-oriented parties. "Although these data apply to one country's political system, there are broad similarities in political parties across Western democracies, and so these data might have wider relevance beyond the UK," say the authors.
Doyle, who was not part of the study isn't so sure, noting the United Kingdom has small political parties, the Greens and Liberal Democrats, as well as nationalist parties that play a larger role in political life than small U.S. parties. "My only concern is that when examining the association between intelligence and voting they only adjust for sex and social class. Normally, voting models control for a range of other individual characteristics that are known to predict vote choice such as trade union membership and, most importantly, education," adds Doyle, by email. "They really need to test this assumption to see if there relationship between intelligence and vote choice remains when they include education."
Her own work in the United Kingdom suggests that "that higher intelligence scores are associated with Conservative voting on average." But "those with very high level of intelligence are less likely to vote Conservative and more likely to vote Labour," Doyle adds.
Of course, "when candidates appeal to 'every intelligent voter,' they mean everybody who is going to vote for them," as the New York Tribune's venerated columnist Franklin Pierce Adams wrote decades ago. Scientific studies aren't likely to change that, but at least political junkies can take some comfort that following politics seems to be a pursuit for brainy folks, whatever way they are voting.