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Why do you vote ? October 1, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics.
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I have never really voted except in a college class election. Infact, in one of thoese elections, I reached the booth to learn the polling was done and the election turned out to be a draw !! Maybe for the first time in my life, I remember feeling really important ! 🙂

And guilty – the winner was decided by the toss of a coin. And the winner wasnt exactly the one I intended to vote for.

This article is really really interesting. I am pasting a section of that here because it is relevant to the idea of social incentives that I mentioned in my this post here.

Now as then, many people worry about low voter turnout – only slightly more than half of eligible voters participated in the last presidential election – but it might be more worthwhile to stand this problem on its head and instead ask a different question: considering that an individual’s vote almost never matters, why do so many people bother to vote at all?

The answer may lie in Switzerland. That’s where Patricia Funk discovered a wonderful natural experiment that allowed her to take an acute measure of voter behavior.

The Swiss love to vote – on parliamentary elections, on plebiscites, on whatever may arise. But voter participation had begun to slip over the years (maybe they stopped handing out live pigs there too), so a new option was introduced: the mail-in ballot. Whereas each voter in the U.S. must register, that isn’t the case in Switzerland. Every eligible Swiss citizen began to automatically receive a ballot in the mail, which could then be completed and returned by mail.

From a social scientist’s perspective, there was beauty in the setup of this postal voting scheme: because it was introduced in different cantons (the 26 statelike districts that make up Switzerland) in different years, it allowed for a sophisticated measurement of its effects over time.

Never again would any Swiss voter have to tromp to the polls during a rainstorm; the cost of casting a ballot had been lowered significantly. An economic model would therefore predict voter turnout to increase substantially. Is that what happened?

Not at all. In fact, voter turnout often decreased, especially in smaller cantons and in the smaller communities within cantons. This finding may have serious implications for advocates of Internet voting – which, it has long been argued, would make voting easier and therefore increase turnout. But the Swiss model indicates that the exact opposite might hold true.

But why is this the case? Why on earth would fewer people vote when the cost of doing so is lowered?

It goes back to the incentives behind voting. If a given citizen doesn’t stand a chance of having her vote affect the outcome, why does she bother? In Switzerland, as in the U.S., “there exists a fairly strong social norm that a good citizen should go to the polls,” Funk writes. “As long as poll-voting was the only option, there was an incentive (or pressure) to go to the polls only to be seen handing in the vote. The motivation could be hope for social esteem, benefits from being perceived as a cooperator or just the avoidance of informal sanctions. Since in small communities, people know each other better and gossip about who fulfills civic duties and who doesn’t, the benefits of norm adherence were particularly high in this type of community.”

Social disincentives is no rocket science obviously. We are aware of it all the time. Consider you have a banana skin in your hand that you would love trashed somewhere. Two cases :

Situation 1 : Its 5 pm saturday afternoon on MG Road in Bangalore and the police are, for some reason, on a strike. The streets teeming with people but no trashcans in sight.

Situation 2 : Its 2 am on the Outer ring road. Not a soul in sight. And no trashcan either.

Under what circumstances are you more likely to just throw that banana skin on the pavement ?

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