Why Do People Bother To Vote?

Politicians and social commentators worry that the turnout of 59% of the electorate in the UK General Election of 2001 is much too small. But as Amrita Dhillon and Susana Peralta explain in the latest issue of the Economic Journal, to an economist, this figure is inexplicably high! Since it is difficult for individual voters to believe that they can affect the outcome of an election with their votes, why should they bother turning out even if the cost of voting is less than a penny?

Dhillon and Peralta”s report surveys the latest economic research that seeks to understand why so many people turn out to vote. It suggests the following principal motivations:


  • Voters turn out more when an election is close. This can happen in two ways: voters realise when their vote is more likely to count; and parties concentrate their election resources on reaching voters in marginal seats.
  • Informed voters turn out more than uninformed ones: it is ”rational” for uninformed citizens to abstain when there is a danger that they will affect the election against their own best interests.
  • Citizens are less likely to turn out when they see no difference between the main contenders. One perception is that this happens when voters are disaffected; it can also happen when they would be equally happy with either alternative.
  • Increases in the cost of voting or in the size of the population cause turnout to decline.
  • Parties that have a bigger support base have more trouble getting their supporters to turn out at elections: this is because the vote of an individual supporter matters less.
  • Social norms are important in voting decisions: If turnout levels were historically high, they tend to stay high. For example, voter turnout in Italy is persistently high (close to 90% on average) compared to the United States (50% on average).
  • Finally, ”bandwagon effects” can be explained by the needs of voters to have their beliefs reinforced by other voters. For example, the recent success of the extreme right in France in the first round of the presidential election led to some copycat voting for the BNP in the UK.

”Economic Theories of Voter Turnout” by Amrita Dhillon and Susana Peralta is published in the June 2002 issue of the Economic Journal. Dr Dhillon is at the University of Warwick; Ms Peralta is at the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium.

Amrita Dhillon

024-76-523056 | A.Dhillon@warwick.ac.uk