We’ve already discussed what goes into people’s vote choice and how it can differ from individual to individual, and group to group. So, too, do the reasons for even voting in the first place. The two topics are not necessarily mutually exclusive, although people that have similar reasons for vote choice can place differing levels of importance on actually voting. Although many different reasons for voting are known, political scientists have also attempted making theoretical models to further explain said reasons.
Theories of Why People Vote
Probably the earliest theory of why people come out to vote is rational choice theory. Rational choice theory was originally an economic concept, but it has been applied to a bunch of other fields as well. The idea behind the theory is that individuals will choose to do what is in their best interest to do. In the context of voting, the theory posits that people are voting because it is in their best interest to do so.
On the surface, it makes sense. Why wouldn’t people do what is in their best interest? But there is a major flaw in the theory. In a lot of cases, it actually isn’t rational for voters to come out to vote. The best way to think about this is to take a presidential election. Millions and millions of voters throughout the country come out to vote in it, and even in the smallest states, there will be at least several hundred thousand voters that cast a ballot. What are the chances that a single vote is going to affect the outcome of such a big election? They are quite small.
The other major flaw is that it assumes that people know what is rational for them to do. As humans, we do things all the time that aren’t actually in our best interest, but we may want to do them at the time. Even the most rational people can’t be rational every single time.
This does NOT, however, mean that rational choice theory is useless. In fact, it can and has been useful, although it has needed some revamping over time. Various theories have sprouted up since, some utilizing remnants of rational choice theory or tweaking it. For example, some would argue that it is rational for someone who has a lot of emotional investment in elections to participate because of the good feeling they get from participating. It’s certainly plausible, but it can’t completely explain voter turnout rates. There have to be other psychological processes involved.
There are too many such theories to list here, but here are a couple of examples. No theory is “perfect” or will describe 100% of people, nor are they trying to be. But they are valuable for probing deeper into why people cast a vote (whatever that vote may be).
- Quattrone and Tversky (1988): These two authors offer several different reasons for both why people vote in the first place and why people make certain vote choices (of course, we will focus on the former given what this post is about). Here is one of the reasons: There is a fallacy among some voters that if they vote, others with similar political attitudes will also come out. This is a failure to distinguish between an act that produces an outcome (known as a causal contingency) and an act that is only correlated with an outcome but not causing it (known as a diagnostic contingency). Their choice to vote isn’t causing politically-similar people to also vote, but they just happen to be more likely to vote since they have similar attitudes.¹
- Harder and Krosnick (2008): The conclusion of these two authors offers five other reasons for why people turn out. (1) Some places make it much easier to register to vote and to cast a ballot, while other places make it harder. (2) Some demographics are more motivated or have a greater capability of coming out to vote. (3) Social setting and psychological dispositions can shape motivation and ability to vote. (4) Certain elections inspire more people to turn out (e.g. because they inspire people). Finally, (5) canvassing and interviewing people about an election can influence them to vote.²
Below are some more general reasons for why people come out to vote, although it isn’t a comprehensive list.
The Magnitude of an Election
Of course, not every election is equal. There are presidential elections, midterm elections, state-level elections, municipal elections, special elections, etc. While each office is important, the scope of each office, media coverage surrounding it, and so on is greater for some and less than others. It also generally becomes more difficult searching for information for elections the further down the ballot you go, and fewer and fewer people are willing to do so or have the time for it.
Generally speaking, presidential elections get the highest turnout rate, followed by midterm elections (what offices are available in midterms for state-level governments varies depending on the state), then municipal elections. Special elections are, well, a special case. It depends in large part on what office is having a special election. Special elections for U.S. Senate, such as for Alabama in 2017, are going to generate much better turnout rate than, say, a special election for a state house seat.
Civic Duty: Being a “Good Citizen”
For many people, it is not only a right but a duty to research who is running and go out to vote. This type of voter is also more likely to turn out for just about any election, no matter when it happens in the year or how small the office is — although the sense of civic duty may extend only so far (e.g. presidential and midterm elections only).
But having a sense of civic duty, or more so knowing that voting is a social norm, isn’t guaranteed to make somebody head to the polls. Survey data has consistently shown that there is an overreport of turnout compared to actual statistics — that is, more people report turning out than those who actually did. This is usually due to social desirability bias. Many people don’t want to admit that they didn’t vote because they worry that they will be looked down upon.
Partisanship/Ideology: Being a “Good” Republican/Democrat
Turnout is not equal across levels of partisanship and ideology. Republicans and Democrats in general turn out at higher rates than independents do. More than that, it is the more highly partisans (what political scientists refer to as “strong” Democrats and Republicans) that vote at higher rates than their “weak” counterparts (those who aren’t as strongly tied to their party labels). Likewise, more staunchly conservative and liberal voters vote at higher rates than those who are less so or moderate.
Politics is often like sport, where some voters get highly attached to their “team” and badly want their team to win. For some, it is just their “due diligence” of being a member of a party, much like being a “true fan” of a sports team. For others, it is more a matter of hatred and anger toward the opposite side, desiring more to see the opponent lose than so much seeing their side win. In fact, some may actually dislike their side, but they just dislike the other side more.
There are two types of political efficacy: internal and external. Internal efficacy refers to how much an individual feels they know and can understand politics. External efficacy refers to how much an individual feels they can affect politics through participation. This doesn’t have to be voting; it could also be volunteering for a campaign or registering voters, among other examples.
We would generally expect lower turnout rates among voters with low amounts of either type of efficacy. If an individual feels politics is too complicated or is too disaffected, there may be less of a chance of them voting compared to someone who feels differently. But this isn’t necessarily the case. People who feel politics is too complicated may rely on heuristics, mental shortcuts that help them make a decision more easily. The most common heuristic is partisanship: Republicans will likely vote Republican, and Democrats will likely vote Democratic. Those who feel that they can’t effect change may, for example, still feel it is their civic duty to vote or just want to put their voice out there regardless.
Retrospective voting is often discussed in the context of why people vote the way they do, but it can also be used in explanations for the choice of even coming out to vote in the first place. Usually, retrospective voting takes an economic context. If an economy takes a downturn, many people are going to vote against incumbent officeholders such as presidents because they feel the economic sting, including those who might not otherwise have come out in the first place.
- George A. Quattrone and Amos Tversky. 1988. “Contrasting Rational and Psychological Analyses of Political Choice.” American Political Science Review 82 (3): 719–736.
- Joshua Harder and Jon A. Krosnick. 2008. “Why Do People Vote? A Psychological Analysis of the Causes of Voter Turnout?” Journal of Social Issues 64 (3): 525–549.