Widowhood Effects in Voter Participation


  • We thank André Blais, Kent Jennings, Alex Verink, the Human Nature Group, the UCSD Comparative Politics Workshop, panel participants at the 2012 MPSA conference, and the anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.

  • This research uses three publicly available data sources: the Social Security Death Master File (distributed through the National Technical Information Service), the California Voter Record (distributed through the California Secretary of State's office), and the U.S. Census zip-code data. The Social Security Death Master File, relatively complete at the time we obtained the data, no longer includes many state records. More complete death-record information can be obtained by application to the California Department of Public Health.


Past research suggests that spouses influence one another to vote, but it relies almost exclusively on correlation in turnout. It is therefore difficult to establish whether spouses mobilize each other or tend to marry similar others. Here, we test the dependency hypothesis by examining voting behavior before and after the death of a spouse. We link nearly six million California voter records to Social Security death records and use both coarsened exact matching and multiple cohort comparison to estimate the effects of spousal loss. The results show that after turnout rates stabilize, widowed individuals vote nine percentage points fewer than they would had their spouse still been living; the results also suggest that this change may persist indefinitely. Variations in this “widowhood effect” on voting support a social-isolation explanation for the drop in turnout.