Step Right Up and Vote… You Could Win $100,000

The mayoral election in L.A. county on August 12, 2014 had the lowest amount of votes cast in 100 years, at 23.3% of the 1.8 million population. As a result, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission is considering incentivizing people to vote by paying them. One proposal is for a lottery offering a $100,000 prize.

Those opposed dislike that informed voters, who care about voting and take time to learn about the candidate’s platforms, will be alongside people who do not normally get a benefit from voting, but vote anyway to try a win money. Studies by Fordham University Professor Costas Panagopoulus have found that monetary incentives increase voter turnout, although this result is not surprising as many people respond to (dollar) incentives.

In economics, many papers show that the chance of your vote being the marginal vote in any election, especially presidential elections, is infinitesimal. In the 2008 election, the chance of your vote deciding the presidential election was 1 in 60 million or 0.00000001%.  So, why do people vote in the first place if their vote does not matter and why are fewer people voting now than ever before? In the book, To Vote or Not To Vote? The Merits and Limits of Rational Choice Theory, Andre Blais states that there are:

 “two kinds of benefits [that] are associated with voting: investment (or instrumental) and consumption benefits. The investment benefits are those linked to the outcome of the election: they are the difference in utility the individual attaches to having candidate A win rather than candidate B. These investment benefits are contingent on her casting a decisive vote, and the expected benefit is bound to be exceedingly small. The consumption benefits—the sense of satisfaction one derives from fulfilling her sense of duty—are not contingent: she feels satisfied when she votes, whatever the outcome of the decision. She consumes voting for its own sake.”

To making voting fit a rational choice model, one must have a broad definition rather than a narrow definition of rational choice. A broad definition would state that we do not care about a person’s objectives or motives, but rather that the individual is behaving and making choices to maximize their utility. The benefit of voting is a consumption benefit.  A more narrow definition would yield an investment benefit. The problem associated with such a broad definition of rational choice is a risk of tautology—if we argue that a person chooses to do something because they believe the benefits outweigh the cost than the theory never fails.

In an attempt to explain this paradoxical way of thinking about voting, many scholars have made “amendments” to the rational choice theory. Blais explores and refutes them all. Instead, he provides four major alternatives to explain why people vote.

  1. Resources-The decision to participate hinges on time, money and civic skills. The more one has the more likely one is to participate.
  2. Mobilization-Social networks from family, friends, neighbors, co-workers etc. exert pressure on people to behave as a group, rather than as individuals. This peer pressure makes a person more likely to vote.
  3. Psychological involvement- Although a trivial explanation, the more interested a person is in politics, the more likely they are to vote.
  4. Sociological interpretation- an individual acts in their own self-interest and will vote if it is in their best interest to do so.

These alternatives show that the rational choice model is unlikely to be satisfactory at explaining voter turnout. Using these four alternative reasons, the following explanations may explain why people, like those in L.A. county, are voting less than before:

  1. We have just come out of a recession in recent years and people may be working more to meet bills and do not have the spare leisure time to vote.
  2. Although social networking is strong via Facebook and Twitter, face-to-face interaction may be decreasing, so the shame one feels for not voting is not realized.
  3. With all of the arguing in the Federal government and even on local levels, many people are dissuaded from politics.
  4. Individuals may start to realize that voting does not increase their personal job prospects or they are starting to realize that the probability that their vote is the deciding vote in an election is small.

Although, these explanations are simplified, the takeaway is that rational choice theory does not accurately explain why people vote. Instead, as Blais offers, there are physical, cultural, psychological and sociological reasons for why people vote. Offering a monetary incentive to vote will add to Blais’ explanations for why people vote and, empirically, it has been shown that monetary incentives will bring about the desired outcome– more voters.

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2 thoughts on “Step Right Up and Vote… You Could Win $100,000

  1. Blais’ reasons are all based on rational choice theory. In 1 – 4 some cost or benefit of voting is changing, which changes the decision at the margin. In number 4 he throws some imperfect information in.

    Rational choice theory indeed never fails because the alternative is that people do stuff that knowingly makes them worse off, which is completely inconsistent with human nature. I haven’t read Blais’ book but the analysis you have provided leads me to believe that his argument is very weak. I think he has rational choice envy.

    • Adam,Blais’ comes from a political science background and tries to study rational choice theory with a behavioral component. In my reading of Blais, he seems to provide weak evidence, as you suggested, for why the rational choice theory does not hold. Regardless, many scholars have attempted to refute the rational choice theory by using behavioral models and examples. Blais has just been one of the most published on the topic.

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