• Carin Elam

When voting is an extra thing to do in a day

The irrationality of voting, the incentive to abstain, and simple dissuasion

Setting the scene: small barriers, big results

Candidates and activists have been working for months to motivate voters to get to the polls. But, why does it take so much effort to increase voter participation? More than half the U.S. population does not vote? Why? Political scientists, pundits, pollsters, campaign all study this, and the reasons are incredibly diverse. Some truly choose to not vote. Whereas, others plan to vote, but encounter barriers that make it just difficult enough that they skip it; thinking that their vote doesn't matter. Bad actors, such as a Brian Kemp or a Kris Kobach, know this and exploit it.

What typically motivates a Voter to avoid the polls?

Early voting studies analyzed and hypothesized the motivations behind a voters decision to participation in the electoral process. The reasons may include: an unfamiliarity with the candidates and issues, a personal hardship (e.g., no car, no time off from work), or apathy (i.e., feeling like the government has never helped them before, so it doesn't matter). In addition, ecological factor affect a voter's decision to vote or not such as, cultural upbringing or partisan affiliation.

Bottom line: voting is an extra thing to do in a day

Accepting that voter motivations are complicated, voting is also an extra thing to do in a day. Regardless of it's infrequency (once every two or four years), the act of voting is a chore. It takes time and effort. And, in most states, voting requires advance register (typically 30-days in advance). This means some planning. This requires that the voter live a life that can handle planning and taking the time to vote. Political scientists call this the "increased costs of voting". They look beyond lost wages and factor in other costs: actual costs and opportunity costs. Real costs may include gas, bus fare, take-out lunch. Opportunity costs could include: disruption to carpool duty, missed email messages or phone calls because you're not at work, and time spent reading about candidates and ballot propositions (because the voter could be doing anything else other than this). And, these have been measured in "normal" years, during normal times, when wait times at polling places were relatively short and ballot boxes for mail-in voting were easy to find.

Does it make rational sense to vote?

In economic theory, rationality is simply defined as a person who has preferences and makes a choice (a decision) based upon those preferences, and knows that they live in a world with other people who have preferences and makes choices.

Most things done are done for a reason. A person is hungry, he or she eats. The refrigerator is empty, that person goes to the store. The person needs money to buy food, he/she works. All of these are rational choices. Not going to work is also a rational choice. The person may lose their job, have less money and maybe less food to eat, but still not going to work is a rational choice if the person sees the benefit of not going to work outweighs the going to work. For example, a single mom's son or daughter is sick. The mom can't send the child to school and doesn't have a regular babysitter. Therefore, the mom doesn't go to work that day and earns less money.

Voting is a choice and it frequently


against other priorities.

There's an Incentive to Abstain

In An Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs, economist and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution argued that voting is not a rational activity. His reasoning: a voter will use rational choice logic when deciding to vote or not. He or she will think through the effort involved (e.g., skip work, miss daughter's soccer game, not make it to the grocery store) versus the benefit or reward (i.e., will my candidate win if I vote? will me candidate win if I don't vote?). Then decide. Downs wrote, “Every rational man decides to vote just as he makes all other decisions: if the returns outweigh the costs, he votes; if not, he abstains”. This is defined as:

Reward for Voting = (Chances Candidate Wins x Probability of Winning) - Cost of Voting

Although scholars debate the actual cost to the voter, there appears to be a consensus that a real or perceived increase in cost (i.e., inconvenience measured in time) will negatively affect voter participation. Therefore, in a "normal" year, if voting become a little more difficult, a voter (a rational actor as defined above) will choose to abstain from voting. This is a theory used to explain why more than 50% of eligible voters skip going to the ballot box. Here, it's important to specify that the abstainers are not the suppressed. Abstainers make a rational choice to not vote.

And, this is compounded if there is a a sense that their vote will only have a “negligible effect on [the] outcome”. Scholars Moshe Haspel and H. Gibbs-Knotts compliment this argument, writing that a simple increase in the cost of voting can lead to a decrease in voter participation (i.e., limiting the number of ballot boxes in each county, reducing options for early voting).

Why do want to look this? This is terrible!

Corrupt politicians understand that there's an incentive to abstain and they exploit it. Subtle barriers (e.g., moving a polling place further away from a bus stop, closing polling places, eliminating ballot boxes, asking voters to re-register) have been used to dissuade voters from casting their ballots. Political theory put to practice. Small barriers. Big Results. The stacks are high. Candidates play dirty.

One's Civic Duty

Other scholars challenged the incentive to abstain narrative. In “The Theory of the Calculus of Voting”, William Riker and Peter Ordeshook argued that any cost associated with voting will be offset by a “sense of citizen duty”. Maybe they're right. Voters are motived, and this year feels different.

2020 is so very different. Voters are motivated!

Since the 2020 election cycle is so very different from other years, the "normal" motivations to abstain may prove to be crushed by other factors, namely fear and passion. Given COVID, it could easily be argued that some voters are afraid of heading to the polls. But, looking at the street protests, looking a the long lines during early voting, it feels like there's new found passion around certain issues (e.g., civil justice reform, keeping choice legal). And, maybe an even a stronger sense of civic duty during this election cycle.

Given the current state of the world, pollsters may be very wrong if their models rely too heavily on traditional motivations, such as income, education, or religious affiliation (i.e., polling non-college voter, blue collar worker, evangelical suburban moms). For this election cycle, voters are motivated and more aware of voter suppression. They're pushing back, they're making a voting plan, and using social media to combat the abuse. Examples: they're offering rides to those without cars. They're watching each others kids. They're singing and dancing in line.

And, more and more are sharing their passion for voting and getting others to vote as well. All are working together to find joy in 2021.

#stayinline #votingmatters #morethanavote #ifHallmarkmadeitacardElectionDaywouldbeaholiday #BidenHarris2020 #ditchmitch


  1. The Georgia Voter Suppression Story Is Not Going Away

  2. 'Textbook voter suppression': Georgia's bitter election a battle years in the making

  3. Brians, C. & Grofman, B. (1997). When Registration Barriers Fall, Who Votes? An Empirical Test of a Rational Choice Model. CSD Working Papers - UC Irvine, 1-13.

  4. U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout

  5. Dhillon, A. & Peralta, S. (2002). Economic Theories of Voter Turnout. The Economic Journal, Vol. 112 (480), F332-F352.

  6. Downs, A. (1957). An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York, New York: Harper & Row, 1-310.

  7. Field, P. (1989). Nineteenth-Century American Voting Studies: the New Generation. Historical Methods, Fall 1989, Vol. 22, 164 - 169.

  8. Gimpel, J.G. & Schuknecht, J.E. (2003). Political participation and the accessibility of the ballot box. Political Geography, Vol. 22, 471-488.

  9. Haspel, M. & Gibb-Knotts, H. (2005, May). Location, Location, Location: Precinct Placement and the Costs of Voting. The Journal of Politics, Vol. 67 (2), 560-573.

  10. Webb, G. (2014). Precinct Size Matters - The Large Precinct Bias in US Presidential Elections. Retrieved from https://arxiv.org/abs/1410.8868. Retrieved on 11 May 2019.

  11. McNulty, J., Dowling, C., & Ariotti, M. (2017). Driving Saints to Sin: How Increasing the Difficulty of Voting Dissuades Even the Most Motivated Voters.Political Analysis,17(4), 435-455.

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