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Rationality of voting

Gur Huberman writes, regarding the Edlin, Gelman, and Kaplan article in The Economist’s Voice:

Can you extend the charity/rationality argument to explain why people in non battleground sates (e.g., NY) vote? Even if charity motivation is a partial explanation for voting, an implication would be that voter turnout is higher in battleground states, other things being equal. However, I am afraid that this prediction is consistent with many other explanations of why people vote.

Another issue that has intrigued me for years: I am under the impression that voter turnout is lower in local elections and in midterm elections. In midterm elections there’s less at stake, so your charity story seems to cover that. But, selfishly speaking, it may well be that who my mayor is may have a stronger impact on my life than who my president is. (Quantifying this last statement is challenging.) If so, why am I more likely to vote in a presidential election than in a mayoral one? Your charity theory may help answer the question.

My reply

1. I think there are many reasons for voting, and in NY it’s not particularly rational for instrumental reasons.

2, In our article a couple years ago in the journal Rationality and Society, Edlin, Kaplan, and I discuss the coexistence of many different models for voting. For example, there is the “psychological” model that we are more likely to vote in an election that more people are talking about. People are more likely to talk about an election that is close and that is viewed as important. So the psychological and economic/rational explanation coincide in this way. (Similarly, you could consider psychological or economic rationales for purchases. For example, if I buy something on sale, I’m economically motivated to save money and psychologically motivated because of the pleasure in “getting a deal.”) These two things reinforce each other; I see them as parallel, not competing, explanations.

3. Your mayor may have more of an impact on _your_ life, but total impact is proportional to total #people affected. And that doesn’t even get into foreign policy (not an issue for local politics unless you happen to live in, say, Berkeley, California).


  1. jsalvati says:

    I'm curious what you think of Bryan Caplan's "The Myth of the Rational Voter" and related papers

  2. Andrew Gelman says:

    See here.

    Also here for some discussion of the political context.

  3. Stentor says:

    I would think another consideration about local elections is a lack of certainty about what vote is the right one, which would apply a discount to your expected value (selfish or charitable) of a good candidate winning. It's easy to get information about presidential candidates, so people feel like they have a pretty good idea (regardless of how rational its basis actually is) which candidate is better. But it's likely that you have little to go on in picking the mayor. I know I skipped the school board elections entirely because I had no way of knowing which candidates were better, though I wouldn't be surprised if one candidate actually were much better or much worse.

  4. Bruce Tabor says:

    We've solved this problem in Australia by considering that voting, like jury duty, paying taxes etc is a civic duty.

    Voting is compulsory in local, state and federal elections, with a small fine for non-compliance.

    The Wikipedia article goes into some of the arguments for and against, so I wont say anything more.