Project Descriptions

“First and Foremost” – An ESRC-funded project on the electoral experience of first time voters

First and foremost is an innovative comparative project to analyse the electoral experience of first time voters and consider how it can be improved and optimised.

First times are moments that many never forget. According to Bruter and Harrison (2020), 73% of British people, 82% of Americans, and 90% of South Africans remember their first vote. The existing literature has also confirmed the long-term importance of that first electoral experience. Butler and Stokes (1969) showed that electoral choice in the first two elections largely determines future vote. Franklin (2004) and Coppock and Green’s (2016) works show how turnout at the first opportunity may start a habituation process. Lodge, Gottfried at al. (2014) and Bruter and Harrison (2017) go even further and find that voting in the first two elections of their lives will likely make citizens regular participants, whilst abstaining in both may lead them to become chronic abstentionists instead. First elections thus determine likely electoral turnout and behaviour for much of people’s lives, and First and Foremost dedicates systematic attention to the way new voters experience them, the psychological, institutional, and political determinants of their behaviour, and potential institutional responses.

First and Foremost is an empirical comparative project based on mixed quantitative and qualitative methods which focuses on characterising the experience of citizens’ first vote, understanding the psychological, institutional, and contextual factors that impede or improve their likely participation, satisfaction, and likelihood to participate in future elections. We also assess how Election Management Bodies can use the opportunity of this first vote to improve potential first time voters’ engagement and satisfaction notably by experimentally testing very specific instruments directed at first time voters. The project features a unique collaboration with Election Management Bodies in the UK, Australia, South Africa, France and the USA to ensure the highest level of impact of our proposed work.

At the heart of our model is the idea that whilst youth participation is a challenge, a citizen’s first vote is also a unique opportunity. Firstly, it is a ‘first time’, with its inherent potential of excitement, curiosity, and discovery on the part of young people which they express qualitatively in our pilot study, and which political systems could use to bring citizens into democratic politics. We use psychological research on other ‘first times’ – from sexuality to alcohol and parenthood – to understand how the first time dynamics can be best adapted to the question of the first vote. Secondly, ‘first timers’ are known to offer unique opportunities to institutions. Banks treat first time buyers differently when it comes to giving them their first mortgage (they have not developed bad habits yet, and are open to information, habit formation, discipline) and those who open their first bank accounts, just as companies have specific training schemes for people who take their first job. Here again, we use insights from marketing to psychology to understand the receptiveness of first timers and the potential long term impact of the way that they are educated, institutionalised and habituated into voting.

On that basis, First and Foremost takes a unique look at young people’s ‘first election’, how it is experienced, what causes its relative success or failure – in terms of institutional design and rules, timing, family influence, psychological determinants, context, and what shapes their emotions, key attitudes (including efficacy, sense of inclusion or alienation, satisfaction), and both initial and repeat turnout at the next election. It will answer the following research question: How is a young person’s first election experienced, what are the personal, institutional, and contextual determinants of potential first time voters’ emotions, attitudes (satisfaction with the electoral process, efficacy, alienation), and turnout in their first and subsequently second election?