Does the age of first vote affect future voting and political attitudes? Our evidence says no.

Political scientists have long debated whether the experience of voting for the first time at a young age has long-lasting effects on an individual’s political behavior and attitudes. At issue is whether it makes a difference whether you vote for the first time when you are still a teenager – the most common age of enfranchisement is 18 – or when you are already a young adult. How old you are when you vote for the first time in national elections depends on chance, namely on how the electoral calendar lines up with your own age.

Some political scientists have argued that early voting – i.e. having your first-time voting experience at a younger age – creates stronger habits and transforms young citizens into more engaged voters for life. Others are skeptical that a single act of voting can have such profound downstream consequences, which would reduce the some of the instrumental justification of lowering the voting age often raised by proponents.

In our new study, we provide compelling evidence that voting at a younger age does not, in fact, have persistent effects on future political participation and engagement. We leverage rich longitudinal data from the United Kingdom to examine how the timing of first voting eligibility impacts individuals’ political trajectories over the subsequent 15-30 years.

Our design is based on the fact that in the UK, as in many other countries, citizens become eligible to vote when they turn 18. This creates a sharp cutoff where people turning 18 just before an election can vote, while those turning 18 just after cannot. By comparing these two groups of individuals born a few days apart and thus only differing in whether they were barely eligible or barely ineligible to vote in their first election around their 18th birthday, we can isolate the causal effect of early voting eligibility.

Our study draws on individual-level survey data from over 90,000 respondents across seven UK general elections from 1992 to 2017. This allows us to track political attitudes and behaviors over many election cycles for the same individuals. Importantly, the data covers both registered and unregistered citizens, providing a representative picture of the entire population.

What did we find? Our results offer little support for the notion that early voting eligibility creates durable habits or transforms young citizens:

  1. Turnout: We compare turnout levels for several elections, and first document  that young citizens do indeed vote when they become eligible to do so (see Panel A, Figure 1). Yet, their lower voting age does not translate into higher turnout subsequently. In the first election in which both groups are eligible, there is no difference in turnout between those who eligible to vote in the previous election and those not eligible (see Panel B, Figure 1). This pattern holds across subsequent elections (see Panels C and D, Figure 1), suggesting no long-term impact of voting a younger age on subsequent turnout rates.
  2. Political engagement: Eligibility at a younger age does produce a short-term spike in political interest, party identification, and other measures of involvement immediately after the first election. But these effects dissipate quickly. By the time of the next election, there are no detectable differences in political engagement between the two groups. The “first-time voting high” seems to wear off fast.
  3. Contextual factors: One possibility we explored is whether the nature of the first election matters for downstream consequences. However, our results are remarkably consistent across the seven elections studied, which varied considerably in their competitiveness and outcomes. We cannot detect a transformative power of first-time voting even for more exciting or important elections.

Our findings have important implications for ongoing debates about lowering the voting age to 16, a policy recently implemented in Germany and Belgium in the European elections. Advocates sometimes argue that earlier eligibility will boost long-run political participation by getting young people into the habit of voting. But our study suggests such effects are unlikely, so the persistent impact of voting at 16 versus 18 may be minimal.

More broadly, the results reveal the limits of one-shot interventions in shaping political behavior. If even the intense experience of voting for the first time does not durably change people’s political trajectories, we should be skeptical of claims that brief educational programs or get-out-the-vote drives will transform citizens in the long term.

The study also highlights how institutional context matters for understanding political socialization. Most prior evidence for persistent voting effects comes from the United States, where onerous registration requirements create high barriers to electoral participation. Getting someone to overcome those initial hurdles may indeed have long-lasting impacts. But in places like the UK with lower institutional barriers, the story seems quite different. This suggests that apparent habit formation in the US may have more to do with the peculiarities of its election administration than with the intrinsic psychological effects of voting itself.

Consistent with an emerging consensus in the field, the study suggests that rather than fixating on early mobilization at young ages, those who want to boost political engagement in the long term should focus on creating a broader environment that continually motivates and facilitates participation across the entire life course. There are no easy shortcuts to creating deeper engagement with politics among citizens.


Fig. 1: Circles represent average voting shares for individuals born in a certain month relative to the cut-off date; at election t0, individuals born to the right of the cut-off have the right to vote. We pool information for elections in 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2017. Data: BHPS / UKHLS.

This blog piece is based on the forthcoming Journal of Politics article “Long-Run Effects of Earlier Voting Eligibility on Turnout and Political Involvement” by Jonas Jessen, Daniel Kuehnle, and Markus Wagner.

The empirical analysis has been successfully replicated by the JOP and the replication files are available in the JOP Dataverse

About the Authors

Jonas Jessen is a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at the Institute of Labor Economics (IZA) and the Institute for Employment Research (IAB). He studies how institutions shape individual’s decision making and their effect on labour market outcomes.
Personal website:

Daniel Kuehnle is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. His research covers the role of public policy in shaping health and labour market outcomes. Personal website:

Markus Wagner is a Professor in the Department of Government, University of Vienna, Austria. He studies the role of issues, ideologies and identities in party competition and electoral behavior. Personal website: