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Inspired to Vote--By Jury Duty

Story by
Nancy Joseph

After a jury deliberates and reaches a verdict, the jurors return to their regular lives. They also return to the voting booth—with more frequency—according to John Gastil, associate professor of communication.

John Gastil

John Gastil. Media credit: Mary Levin

Gastil and colleagues recently completed a study that explored the relationship between participation on a jury and participation in elections. “We felt that some activities—particularly deliberative activities like participating in town meetings or juries—might inspire people and make them more likely to vote,” says Gastil.

To test this theory, the team focused on jurors in Thurston County, Washington from 1994-1997. Jury service records, readily available at the Thurston County courthouse, provided information on the length of each trial and the jury verdict. County voting records indicated voter participation in elections. By integrating these two databases, the team was able to compare jurors’ frequency of voting before and after serving on a jury. They looked at jurors whose trials had a conclusive verdict versus those whose trials resulted in inconclusive decisions (due to a hung jury or case dismissal, for example).

“We saw a ten percent increase in voter participation for those involved in trials with a conclusive verdict,” says Gastil. “That’s statistically significant. It suggests that if people have a rewarding civic experience in one area, their renewed sense of civic duty transfers to other areas. They become more activated as a citizen.”

Based on these findings, Gastil offers several conclusions. “One obvious conclusion is that we should be arresting more people and having more jury trials to have a vigorous civil society,” he says, tongue firmly in cheek.

Well, maybe not. But Gastil would like to see more equity in the selection of juries. “Attorneys tend to screen out certain populations when selecting juries, due to bias or just cold strategy,” he says. “If certain groups are not invited onto the jury, it affects not only the defendant but also the person denied that opportunity.”

Gastil has applied for a National Science Foundation grant to continue his research on a larger scale, looking at ten counties across the United States and conducting a longitudinal study of jurors in a single county.