Many factors can affect voter turnout: older people generally vote more, as do people with higher income and more years of education. Researchers have recently begun to study how people’s health affects their involvement in politics. Previous research shows healthy people are more likely to vote, even after taking account of other factors known to be associated with turnout.
However, new research published in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law and featured in a Washington Post article written by Sarah Gollust, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School of Public Health and Wendy Rahn, a professor in Political Science, shows voter turnout is related to not just by how healthy you are, but whether you suffer from specific chronic illnesses. The biggest surprise from their research was that cancer was associated with higher voter turnout in the 2008 presidential election.
“We found that three of these diseases — diabetes, asthma, and arthritis — were not related to voter turnout. Heart disease was associated with a lower chance of voting. But cancer was associated with a higher chance of voting,” said Gollust and Rahn in their article. “Compared with those who did not have cancer, those with cancer were almost 3 points more likely to vote in 2008 — again, even after taking into account many other factors.”
They also found different relationships between chronic diseases and voting for people who identified as black versus white and with more years of education versus yes. In particular, the boost in voting among people with cancer was actually higher for blacks and those with less education.
So, why would cancer be associated with higher turnout?
“Perhaps the experience of having cancer gives patients and cancer survivors more social resources and richer social networks, in contrast to the experience of heart disease,” wrote Gollust and Rahn. “These factors may be especially consequential for groups — like ethnic minorities or those with less formal education — who typically have less access to these participation-boosting assets.” Their article offers other hypotheses as well, including the size and scope of advocacy groups representing cancer compared to other chronic diseases.
Although the study highlights correlations between having a chronic illness and voting, their research does not demonstrate that having a chronic disease is actually what causes people to vote at a higher rate. Gollust and Rahn suggest that future research should explore the mechanisms that might explain this intriguing association.