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Dubner and Levitt: Why vote

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Dubner and Levitt. 2005. Why vote? A Swiss Turnout-Boosting Experiment (Freakonomics column). New York Times Magazine.

In Brief

Levitt and Dubner summarize the well-known tension between rational choice models and observed voting behavior. According to economists, you wouldn't vote unless you're mistaken about the probability that your vote matters, mistaken about the costs of voting, or simply wanting to waste time (like we waste money on lotteries). Or, "Perhaps we have been socialized into the voting-as-civic-duty idea, believing that it's a good thing for society if people vote, even if it's not particularly good for the individual. And thus we feel guilty for not voting."

Drawing on the results of a natural experiment in Switzerland, they suggest that voting might be motivated by social rewards: We vote to be seen at the ballot box by our friends and coworkers.

As always, the "Freakonomics" authors don't really contribute anything new or insightful, they merely publicize other scholars' work. In this case, they look at research by Patricia Funk, who studied the introduction of absentee (mail) voting, canton-by-canton, to Switzerland. Although mail voting decreases the costs of voting, turnout went down. The authors conclude that perhaps turnout dropped because those voting by mail fail to gain the social rewards available to those voting in person.

Comment and Criticism

  • The authors' conclusion merely begs a new version of the "why do people vote" question: Why do people send in absentee ballots?
  • Taking another tack, we might ask this: The "social rewards" argument requires that people live in a small enough community that word is likely to get around that they voted. When I go to my polling place, I never see anybody I know. Sure, I get the "I voted" sticker, but I don't really wear it. So now we need to ask, why do people in large communities vote?
  • Conclusion: Levitt and Dubner's argument raises more question than it answers.
  • Another problem: Levitt's story would still lead to a point prediction of zero turnout after introduction of the mail in ballot.