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Voting Participation Predicts Compliance With Social Distancing Guidelines

Teresa Doll fills out a ballot at Central Baptist Church in St. Louis on March 10, 2020.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Teresa Doll fills out a ballot at Central Baptist Church in St. Louis in March.

Whether you vote for President Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden this fall, the very fact that you cast a ballot says something about you: namely, that you’re more likely to practice social distancing.

That’s according to a new study being published in the Journal of Public Economics. It was co-authored by John Barrios, an assistant professor of accounting at Washington University’s Olin Business School.

The authors posited that voter participation is a sign of civic engagement. Where more people consistently vote, they theorized, residents would be more likely to comply with public health mandates, even if those mandates are voluntary.

And the data bore out their thesis. Places with high turnout show better compliance with voluntary mandates, according to mobile phone and survey data. In places where fewer people vote, people began ignoring social distancing mandates even before lockdowns were lifted.

“Social distancing behavior depends on the willingness of individuals to consider the welfare of the collective when taking their own actions — a concept that has been linked to civic capital,” Barrios and co-authors note in “Civic Capital and Social Distancing During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Some researchers have found that Democrats are more willing to comply with public health mandates during this pandemic. But Barrios explained on St. Louis on the Air that the correlation between high turnout areas and better social distancing held true even when controlling for partisan affiliation.

“This is not just a Democrat/Republican thing,” he said. “If you take two areas that are high Republican and high Democrat, you would still see in the Republican areas more compliance when you had high civic engagement. It's not just partisanship.”

And it’s not just an American thing. Barrios said the authors were able to find the same relationship between civic capital and adherence to public health guidelines in Europe.

“You see areas like Sweden, for example, that have high civic capital and have high trust, a lot of their measures and their mandates are voluntary … we're trusting in the communities to self monitor and behave accordingly,” he said. “Versus in Italy, which has lower levels of civic capital. You see that you have to take a more strong-arm approach. You’ve got to close down the city.”

The moral of the story may well be that nations are wise to invest in building civic capital long before the next pandemic, Barrios said.

“We can't just magically snap it into place,” he said. “But I think we want to make investments in this, we want to cultivate civic capital, we want to make sure that we make investments, to motivate people to have trust in our institutions. And to the extent that we can increase trust in others in our society and our institutions, we'll hopefully see more voluntary compliance.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.