Our Daily Bleg: Why Do You Vote?

We received an interesting bleg from Martin Saavedra, who is studying international economics and finance at the Catholic University of America and plans to start an economics Ph.D. next fall. He is interested in a subject we’ve written about before — the utility of voting — although he is after a more personal set of information, namely: why do you vote?

Here is Martin’s bleg:

Why exactly do people vote? There are lots of posts on the rationality of voting and how to increase turnout. While that might explain why or why not someone should vote, it does not explain why people do vote.

People cannot be voting only because they enjoy it. A lot of evidence suggests that changes in the probability that a vote will be decisive, even if that probability is still next to zero, change voter turnout. This suggests that people consider how likely they are to affect the outcome of an election when deciding to vote.

The most insightful answers will probably come from those who are frequently on the margin — that is, the people who vote sometimes. What factors changed their minds?

So I think we should ask readers:

1. Out of the last 3 presidential elections, how many were you eligible to vote in?

2. How many elections did you vote in?

3. Why did you vote (if you did for at least one)?

4. Why did you not vote (if you didn’t for at least one)?

Just to put the bleg in better context, here’s a bit more information about Martin himself:

Voting theory is one my main research interests. Most of the literature states that people either vote for strategic reasons or out of a sense of duty. So theory predicts that in large elections, where the strategic value of voting is near zero, people will vote out of a sense of duty. However, the data contradict this.

So I’m writing a paper arguing that people think their duty is to act strategically, because of a sense of group identity. For those interested, the latest (and still rough) version is available here.

I voted in the 2006 primary and general elections, both times for Michael Steele (R) for the U.S. Senate and for former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R). I did not vote this past election for three reasons:

1. Bad weather.

2. I was up to my eyeballs in midterm exams.

3. After following the election very closely, I didn’t think either candidate was decisively better (although in retrospect, I’m happy Sarah Palin is not vice president-elect).

My parents vote in every election out of a sense of duty.


In answer to the questions:

1. I was eligible for all 3 elections.
2. I voted in all 3.
3. I voted out of habit; as a municipal elected official, voting is just what I do.
4. I did not miss any votes.

As for the utility of voting, consider that while a lone individual's vote may not "matter" -- if everyone took the economists' view and did not vote, there would be no election at all, because no one would vote for anything.


1. Eligible for all three
2. Voted in all three
3. peer pressure/duty: my husband and i are in Oregon, and vote by mail. He always fills his ballot out early and I always procrastinate.

Peer pressure: Despite my VERY strong feelings in most elections, our presidential votes mean little, individually. But my husband will know if I don't vote.

Duty: Our individual votes definitely DO affect local issues about which we also often care strongly, so the actual ACT of voting seems more important than just sending in contributions and registering other voters.

Blake Shurtz

When I was first eligible to vote in 2004, I voted out of pessimism. I viewed Bush as a public bad. In 2008, I voted because I was swept up in optimism and the historical aspects of the election. I'd say I was much more determined to vote and connected to the political process in 2008 than in 2004.


1. 2 / 3
2. 1 / 3
3. I wanted to be able to tell my children / grandchildren that I voted for the first black President of the United States.
4. I didn't care who won between Bush and Kerry in 2004.


My parents also vote out of a sense of duty, and I can remember them telling me years before I was able to vote to always take advantage of that right.

Now that I am old enough to really think about it, I guess there's a sense of duty about it, but I have missed a few primaries, so I guess it has a lot to do with the passion or excitement I feel over the candidate(s). I voted in 2004 because I felt the country was heading in the wrong direction and I didn't want Bush there anymore. This year, I voted for that, but also because I was excited about Obama's message and campaign. I guess there was a bit of strategy too, since I live in NC--one of the closest margin states.

In a larger sense, there have been so many Americans who gave their lives for our rights today, so that's where the "duty" part comes in. I also hate being part of the "young people don't vote" stereotype. I can't stand how much my age group complains about everything but doesn't do anything about it (i.e. vote) when they have the chance. So I guess I want to reverse that stereotype, and this election has changed that at least slightly with higher turnout in that demographic.

Out of the past 3 elections, I was legally able to vote in 2. I voted in both (also the primaries for both).


Brian R. Murphy

1) All three
2) One out of three
3) I was in college in Ohio and felt like my marginal vote was of greater importance/influence.
4) The other two I was at home in Chicago/New York and never saw a race close enough that I actually thought it would be pragmatic to wake up early or leave work/school early.


I've been eligible to vote in the past two presidential elections; I voted in 2004 but not in 2008. I voted in 2004 because I strongly supported one of the two candidates, and since I was riled up by the contentious nature of the election, I desperately wanted to see my candidate win. I did not vote in 2008 because I did not like either candidate and was completely put off by the campaign tactics on both sides. It seems to me that a vote implies support of one candidate or another, and my choice not to vote meant that I didn't support either one.


1. All three (2000 was the first election I could vote in).
2. All three (although I have missed a few odd-numbered-year elections in-between).
3. Civic duty I guess?
4. n/a

The whole rationality-of-voting argument can be cyclical. I could think that I shouldn't vote because my vote has a low chance of being useful. But by the same logic, no one else should be voting. If no one else is voting, then my vote matters a lot, I'd better vote! But everyone else will think that too. So I'd better not vote, it won't matter. But wait, everyone else will think that too!

So at the end, it seems to me you can't determine whether the rational decision is to vote or to not vote, unless you assume everyone else voting is behaving irrationally.

On principal, I do not vote for a person running unopposed, and I do not vote a straight ticket, and I do not vote for a candidate unless I have done at least due diligence on both candidates (what do they stand for, what are their records, etc.). This introduces a big cost to me of voting, as I spend several hours in the weeks before the election doing research on the many people I've never heard of who are running for offices other than senator, congressman, governor, or president.



1) Two
2) Two
3) For the justified right to complain if things turned out poorly or in the favour I did not support

Dan Dickey

I have only been eligible to vote in 2004 and 2008. I voted in both those elections because of a sense of civic duty. Obviously my vote specifically didn't swing either of the elections, so I suppose you could say it "didn't matter," except that the winning side in any election is made up of millions of people whose individual votes did not decide the election. I think of it with sort of a Kantian view: if I could make a universal rule, that everyone votes or everyone doesn't vote, I would certainly choose the former. Therefore I feel obligated to actually cast my vote.

Also, I like voting. You could say I derive utility from the act of participating in a democracy. Voting is for politics junkies what the super bowl is for football fans: you may not like the teams playing in it, you may end up disappointed in the outcome, but you can't just skip the party.

Plus in Washington pretty much everyone votes by absentee ballot, so there's no hassle to it at all.



1. I was eligible to vote in two of the three past presidential elections.

2. I voted in both presidential elections. On a side note, I've also voted in the 2002 and 2006 midterm elections and, upon moving into Chicago, the 2007 Chicago mayoral and aldermanic election.

3. I voted for the following reasons: sense of duty, my vote does count and it's a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, a right that other citizens of the world are not permitted.


1. I was eligible for the 2004 and 2008 elections.

2. I voted in 2004, but not in 2008.

3. In 2004 I voted because of my extreme displeasure with the Bush administration. I did this despite the fact that I was registered in Maryland, which always returns for Democratic Presidential candidates (2004 and 2008 were not exceptions).

4. I did not vote in 2008 because I realized (now voting in New York) that my vote would make even less difference than in Maryland. And even if I thought I could affect down-ballot votes, I haven't lived in New York long enough to know or care about local races (and I suspect that any election for my Brooklyn district would be a lock for the Democrats anyway).

I might consider voting against Bloomberg when he tries to take his disgusting third term, but I suspect even then I will (rightly) feel like my vote won't change the outcome. If the polling is close I might be swayed. We'll see.



1) 3 out of 3
2) All 3
3) I vote mostly out of a sense of duty, but also because I think that expressing my voice is important.
4) Since I turned 18 ten years ago, I've voted in almost all elections, national/state/local, primaries included.

I know its futile-I'm a New England Democrat who has lived in two deep blue states-MA and CT. But I don't care, I'm an American citizen and I take that seriously; to me voting is part of my responsibility as a citizen, like jury duty or, gasp, paying taxes.


1. 2
2. 2
3. I actually felt that the country was headed in the wrong direction, and I felt that my vote made a difference in the likelihood of other people to vote.
4. N/A

In 2004 particularly, I was in PA, which was a semi-swing state, and I think that for young people, voter apathy is highly contagious.
I also think very highly of my own generation compared to my older brother's (Gen-Xers, ugh) or parents (baby boomers!), and I take pride in higher voter turnout among young people.


1. All 3
2. All 3
3. I second #11 (and am also in Washington state). I have voted in every election -- presidential, local, tax/levy, etc. -- for at least the last five years, probably longer. I don't care if my vote matters to the total. My vote -- and the act of voting -- matters to me.

If you build a sand castle, no one grain of sand is significant. Yet if you take away particular grains of sand, the structure collapses. it is never clear in advance which grains of sand are crucial.

Mike B

Why do people post comments on your blog? They don't get any revenue for it, it takes a non-Zero amount of time, they rarely get any fame or notice for it....in your monetized, economic world nobody should ever post comments to your blog.

So why do people do it? Its because this provides a forum to make their thoughts, ideas and opinion heard by either the authors or the other readers of the blog. This is the same source of utility that at least prompts me to vote. Just like I know this post doesn't matter and won't get me any tangible benefit I feel good because I get to be active and do something that might help shape the debate or change opinion. Casting my vote is perhaps the least I can do to make my voice heard and my opinion count for something.

It's also fun to fill out the form.

Jack of Spades

1. I was eligible to vote in all three past Presidential elections.

2. I voted in all three (and in every election since I became eligible).

3. I vote out of a sense of duty, especially considering I have only once managed to vote for a winning candidate. If I don't vote for the candidate I believe best represents me, I think it very unlikely I will continue to be unrepresented. Either I'm a small minority in representation or a small minority of the population.

Mark Wolfinger

1) 3

2) 3

3) To express my feelings. I wanted to add to the total popular vote. I know that my voting was immaterial. In Illinois, the Democrat (that's who I vote for) always wins at the top of the ticket. My vote does is insignificant.

But, it counts to me. It's just one extra vote for Obama's majority. And if that helps provide a 'mandate' that's reason enough to vote.

Mike B

I should follow up and actually answer the questions.

So I think we should ask readers:

1. All 3

2. All 3

3. See above

4. N/A


1. I was eligible to vote in all 3.
2. I voted in all 3.
3. An important reason is one you hear a lot, though it didn't show up in the comments to the degree that I have heard it. It is: to vote against the one who scares me. To vote against the one who repels me and impresses me as a pig in a business suit, one of the "men... who conceal filthy lies under sanctimonious platitudes". Hatred, destroying records, firing whistle blowers, and warmongering while hiding evidence against war, are not "family values".

People usually joke about it as voting for the "lesser of two evils".

I almost didn't vote in this one, to protest Clinton not making the nomination, until this fear and this reason drove me to do so.

The country will be more extremely polarized than ever, especially starting in 2000. Recounts will be normal. Presidents will win by a knife blade, and sometimes by judicial fiat. Maybe even martial law. "Land of the Free?"

Worst reason *ever* not to vote: My then-roommate Sharon didn't vote on California's Proposition 13 because she had to wash her hair. I will never forget her. Nor forgive her.