Published online by Cambridge University Press: 10 December 2010
Classical rational choice explanations of voting participation are widely thought to have failed. This article argues that the currently dominant Group Mobilization and Ethical Agency approaches have serious shortcomings in explaining individually rational turnout. It develops an informal social network (ISN) model in which people rationally vote if their informal networks of family and friends attach enough importance to voting, because voting leads to social approval and vice versa. Using results from the social psychology literature, research on social groups in sociology and their own survey data, the authors argue that the ISN model can explain individually rational non-altruistic turnout. If group variables that affect whether voting is used as a marker of individual standing in groups are included, the likelihood of turnout rises dramatically.
1 It may be objected that this is not rational choice since it rests on psychological, not material, incentives. Although we do not explore it in this article, we are indebted to Hugh Ward for the argument that many material benefits (e.g. employment contacts) flow from approval within informal social networks.
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7 As Palfrey and Rosenthal, ‘Voter Participation and Strategic Uncertainty’, showed, and Feddersen, ‘Rational Choice Theory and the Paradox of Not Voting’, p. 103, reiterates.
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14 Morton, ‘A Group Majority Voting Model of Public Good Provision’; Morton, ‘Groups in Rational Turnout Models’; Uhlaner, ‘Rational Turnout’.
15 This is the Coate assumption. The Feddersen assumption is that they behave as simple rule-utilitarians, but this distinction does not affect our argument.
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21 There are different models possible which depend on how the leader is elected and the group technology.
22 Feddersen, , ‘Rational Choice Theory and the Paradox of Not Voting’, p. 106Google Scholar. Note that this is not a problem in the ethical agent model since in that model the individual member is simply assumed to maximize expected group utility. There is no contract between leader and member.
24 Lying itself may also be unpleasant because it deceives people you care about, and the disutility of lying may increase with the importance a group attaches to the behaviour (here voting) that an individual may lie about.
25 Shachar and Nalebuff, ‘Follow the Leader’.
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42 We also show the significance of a set of ‘social variables’ in addition to expected turnout, namely the degree of political discussion in the respondent's social network, the extent of social disapproval within the network from not voting, and length of residential tenure, which have no role in the atomistic rational choice model.
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48 A constant term is included so that xi 1 = 1 for all i.
49 There may be literally hundreds of small unrelated factors that affect the cost of voting for any individual and ci is the sum of these factors for i. The central limit theorem states (loosely) that the distribution of the sum of a set of N independently distributed random variables converges to the normal as N goes to infinity.
50 Of course, there will be negative drawings from the ci distribution as well as positive ones, reflecting the benefits from voting. The model allows for only a small probability of ci < 0 since we can think of its distribution as ci∼N(α 0, σ 2) with the α 0 > 0 mean absorbed in the constant term.
51 Since the σ transformation does not affect significance tests, the tilde over the coefficients is dropped in what follows.
52 This assumption is discussed below.
53 To see this, add and subtract inside the bracket on the right-hand side. Then each equation takes the form , with , so each equation is identical apart from the . Hence, any solution holds for all i. If a solution exists this implies . With , so and must intersect at least once since Φ is continuous and increases monotonically; and it is easy to see there are an odd number of equilibria.
54 In other words, a player deserves punishment if he behaved badly in the previous period and/or if he deserved to be punished in the previous period but was not. He behaves badly if he did not vote when he meant to or if he did not punish someone who was guilty. We have neglected the case of a player punishing a non-G player. And we have also assumed that a G player at the start of m has no move in m.
55 This assumption can readily be changed.
56 We assume for convenience that the actual number of non-voters in equilibrium is equal to the expected number, and that the number is continuous.
57 As with non-voting, the punishment for not punishing occurs a period later.
58 , while . For simplicity, we assume: (1) that N is continuous; (2) if A ⩾ A*.
59 The cut-off rule here is: vote so long as ci ≤ cA, where cA = β(A + D), which implies that .
60 This is not the only way of dealing with renegotiation-proofness. If my status in the group depends in part on never having been disapproved of by the group while others have, and if this gain in my status outweighs the cost of my having to disapprove of others, it will not be in my interest to renegotiate.
61 If the other side has a majority of 2, then an increase of turnout of 1 on one's own side would lead one to vote – but rationally there should never be a majority of 2.
62 In fairness, the standard model does imply very low levels of turnout, because at very low levels the probability of an individual affecting the outcome of the election is sufficient to outweigh the costs. Beyond that level, PB can be assumed to be 0, as we do assume.
63 These in turn vary with the structure of national political institutions, although our evidence is focused on the United States and the individual level.
64 Morton, ‘A Group Majority Voting Model of Public Good Provision’; Morton, ‘Groups in Rational Turnout Models’; and Uhlaner, ‘Rational Turnout’.
65 Queries about our module of questions on the YouGov survey should be addressed to Samuel Abrams.
66 The actual turnout rate is a subject of debate and disagreement with rates ranging anywhere between 50 and 56 per cent participation. See McDonald, Michael P., ‘Up, Up and Away! Voter Participation in the 2004 Presidential Election’, The Forum, 2 (2004)Google Scholar), issue 4, article 4, for a more thorough discussion.
67 Since too few observations are available for some states, we lose information as a result of including this variable, but the substantive results are not much affected. To make the results comparable across models, all regressions are restricted to the set of observations for which we have party contact data.
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75 It may be objected that part of the effect of the discussion variable is due to those who initiate discussion being simultaneously more likely to vote and to say that discussion is frequent (thus producing an endogeneity problem). Yet we included a question that explicitly asks respondents whether they initiated political discussion, and it turns out not to matter to the results.
76 We estimate this by simply omitting political knowledge from the model and then summing the estimated effects of group turnout, discussion, tenure and disapproval.
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