The More You Know: Voter Heuristics and the Information Search

  • Rachel Bernhard
  • Sean FreederEmail author
Original Paper


Informed voting is costly: research shows that voters use heuristics such as party identification and retrospection to make choices that approximate enlightened decision-making. Most of this work, however, focuses on high-information races and ignores elections in which these cues are often unavailable (e.g. primary, local). In these cases, citizens are on their own to search for quality information and evaluate it efficiently. To assess how voters navigate this situation, we field three survey experiments asking respondents what information they want before voting. We evaluate respondents on their ability to both acquire and utilize information in a way that improves their chances of voting for quality candidates, and how this varies by the sophistication of respondents and the offices sought by candidates. We find strong evidence that voters use “deal-breakers” to quickly eliminate undesirable candidates; however, the politically unsophisticated rely on unverifiable, vague, and irrelevant search considerations. Moreover, less sophisticated voters also rely on more personalistic considerations. The findings suggest that voters’ search strategies may be ineffective at identifying the best candidates for office, especially at the local level.


Information search Heuristics Local elections Nonpartisan elections Primaries 



The authors wish to thank Ruth Collier, Gabe Lenz, Laura Stoker, the members of Berkeley’s Political Behavior workshop, and attendees of the 2016 ISPP and 2017 MPSA and WPSA panels at which earlier drafts were presented for their feedback. Special thanks are also owed to Rikio Inouye, Julia Konstantinovsky, and Marissa Lei Aclan for their research assistance, to Mirya Holman for her support, and to Paul Christesen for the question that inspired this paper.

Supplementary material

11109_2018_9512_MOESM1_ESM.docx (3.1 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 3187 kb)


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Nuffield CollegeUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK
  2. 2.University of CaliforniaDavisUSA
  3. 3.University of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA

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