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Why bother voting anyway?

Date:25 April 2017
Author:Richard Jong-A-Pin and Rasmus Wiese
Rasmus Wiese and Richard Jong-A-Pin
Rasmus Wiese and Richard Jong-A-Pin

Economists Richard Jong-A-Pin and Rasmus Wiese of the University of Groningen's Faculty of Economics and Business describe how moral beliefs, not just monetary considerations, guide voters to take part in elections.

A week after the Dutch elections, it is easy to find cynical observers making claims like: “I might as well not have voted, as my vote did not change the election outcome”.

Even though this observation is almost always correct in large scale elections, over 10 million Dutch citizens decided to cast their vote during the most recent parliamentary elections on March 15th.

In a new study that is forthcoming in the European Journal of Political Economy, we provide experimental evidence that expressive behaviour explains why people vote.

The paradox of why people cast a costly vote in large elections even though it is unlikely to be decisive has puzzled economists using rational choice theory (theories based on cost-benefit analysis). As far back as the 1950’s, Gordon Tullock proposed the idea underlying our research project.

In his article, “the charity of the uncharitable”, it is argued that moral beliefs will govern the voting decision when the chance that a single vote will impact the outcome is very low. When individual votes do not matter, individuals can disregard their economic preference when voting and vote according to their moral beliefs because it is costless to do so. These moral beliefs provide warm glow and confirm the identity of voters. In economic terms this is called moral or expressive utility.

In our paper we study expressive (moral) voting behaviour and relate it to political ideology. In an experiment, we asked participants whether they were willing to pay in order to vote and upon their payment, they were asked to vote in favour of their preferred stylized society. The first society has low-income inequality and low overall economic output, the second society has high inequality and high overall economic output. During the experiment we changed the size of the electorate and studied whether voters with clear ideological preferences behaved differently than voters without ideological preferences.

We found that participants with a strong ideological view were markedly more likely to participate in the laboratory election with many voters, compared to voters without clear ideological preferences. In settings with few voters this difference was almost absent.

Our results indicate that monetary considerations are not the only reason why people vote, but that moral beliefs also guide voters to participate in elections.

Further reading:

Wiese, R. and R. Jong-A-Pin. (2017). Expressive voting and political ideology in a laboratory democracy. European Journal of Political Economy. Forthcoming.


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