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June 29, 2005

costs and benefits of voting

When you ask citizens why they didn't vote, many say that the process was inconvenient and time-consuming. (See the table below, which uses 2002 Census survey data.) Their answers suggest that we could increase participation by making it easier to vote, e.g., by turning election day into a national holiday, by allowing early voting or voting-by-mail, or permitting citizens to vote online. But evidence from states that have adopted some of these reforms shows a modest impact. The Motor-Voter law, which was supposed to increase turnout by simplifying registration, did raise the registration rate but not actual turnout in elections.

I have come to think that answers to surveys like the following are misleading. After all, costs and benefits are two sides of the same coin. Someone who says that he lacked the time to vote is also saying that voting was not especially important to him. He actually had time; but other things seemed relatively more pressing. I think the turnout issue comes down to motivation. When issues seem important, when outcomes are uncertain, and when campaigns reach out to mobilize and inform voters, turnout goes up--as it did sharply in '04.

too busy, schedule conflicts 27.1%
out of town, away from home 10.4
transportation problems 1.7
all time and convenience problems 40.6
not interested or felt vote would make no difference 12.0
did not like candidates or campaign issues 7.3
all dissatisfaction issues 19.3
illness or disability 13.1
bad weather 0.7
all special barriers 13.8
registration problems 4.1
forgot to vote 5.7
other reasons (not specified), don't know, or refused 16.5

Posted by peterlevine at June 29, 2005 07:07 AM


I think that is an important point. When people face clear choices then they are more likely to vote. Here is a less important tidbit that you may find interesting:

The only western democracy that has consistently low turnout like the United States is Switzerland. What do the US and Switzerland share? Citizens have to vote on a plethora of issues and candidates. I must admit that I find it very difficult to figure out the correct choices on the ballot. There is just too much going on.

Posted by: Hellmut Lotz at June 29, 2005 10:57 AM

I find it hard not to get really irritated when I read/hear why people don't vote. I can't remember ever believing, from earliest childhood, that "being American" was a free ride.

What's happened? The only way one doesn't get to vote is because one is too ill, disabled, or in some other way prevented from getting to the polling place OR because one is kept from voting by a corrupted system. We need to do something, and fast!, about the latter. At the same time we need eliminate any excuses like "it was snowing" or "I didn't know anything about the candidates" or "I'm into quick solutions, not long -term democratic processes"! Really! I feel very strongly about this.

Posted by: PW at June 30, 2005 01:33 PM

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