The paradox of information and voter turnout

Abstract

The most prominent explanation for the paradox of voter turnout is that citizens are willing to bear the cost of voting because they perceive a benefit (e.g., fulfilling a civic duty or expressing themselves) that is independent of the election outcome. However, a separate literature highlights the empirical importance of information for voter participation, and existing explanations for this are that uninformed citizens either expect smaller benefits from voting, or defer strategically to peers who know more. This paper simply points out that, while either of these theories offers a plausible explanation for the importance of information, neither is robust if the motivation for voting is unrelated to the election outcome. This is because citizens with positive net voting costs should abstain, no matter how well informed, while those with negative net voting costs should vote, no matter how poorly informed. Thus, the purported resolution to the turnout paradox raises a new paradox of information and voter turnout. Intuitively, the quality of a vote should matter only if the vote is somehow instrumental, suggesting that future work should continue to explore instrumental rationales for voting.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Kirchgässner and Pommerehne (1993) raise a third criticism, which is that if the incentive for voting is divorced from its impact on the election outcome, there is no reason to expect citizens to vote in a particular way. A citizen could just as well vote for her least favorite alternative as for her most favorite alternative, for example, if her vote makes no difference one way or the other. Alternatively, a citizen could vote for herself as a write-in candidate, as recommended lightheartedly by Tullock (1975).

  2. 2.

    For reviews of this rather large literature, see Aldrich (1993), Blais (2000), (Mueller 2003, chap. 14), Feddersen (2004), Geys (2006), and Goldfarb and Sigelman (2010).

  3. 3.

    For example, see Palfrey and Rosenthal (1985), Aldrich (1993), Blais (2000), Tullock (2000), Mueller (2003), Geys (2006), and Goldfarb and Sigelman (2010). The expressive voting hypothesis of Brennan and Lomasky (1993) and the group-based ethical rationales emphasized by Feddersen (2004) deepen the interpretation of the duty term, but still are divorced from electoral outcomes. Levine and Palfrey (2007) attribute costly voting to errors in voters’ cost-benefit analysis, modeled by an additive utility term that plays the same mechanical role as civic duty.

  4. 4.

    Geys (2006) also reports evidence from meta analysis that closeness matters.

  5. 5.

    See also the empirical applications in (McMurray 2013, 2015).

  6. 6.

    Although Tenn (2007) warns that these findings might be spurious, due to a selection effect.

  7. 7.

    Coupé and Noury (2004) also document how a lack of information leads individuals to respond less completely to surveys.

  8. 8.

    Mixed strategies could be allowed here, but would not be used in equilibrium. Similarly, strategies could be functions of \(s_{i}\) in addition to \(q_{i}\) and \(c_{i}\), but would be invariant to \(s_{i}\) in equilibrium.

  9. 9.

    In games of Poisson population uncertainty, the finite set of citizens who actually play the game is a random draw from an infinite set of potential citizens, for whom strategies are defined (see Myerson 1998). The distribution of opponent behavior is therefore the same for any two individuals within the game (unlike a game between a finite set of players),implying that a best response for one citizen is a best response for all.

  10. 10.

    Brennan (2011) argues on philosophical grounds that uninformed citizens should feel a sense of duty not to vote.

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Correspondence to Joseph McMurray.

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McMurray, J. The paradox of information and voter turnout. Public Choice 165, 13–23 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-015-0288-1

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Keywords

  • Voting paradox
  • Elections
  • Information
  • Turnout
  • Abstention
  • Costly voting
  • Swing voter’s curse

JEL Classification

  • D72
  • D82