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Informal Social Networks and Rational Voting

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.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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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.

2 Rosenstone, Steven J. and Mark Hansen, John, Mobilization, Participation and Democracy in America (New York: Macmillan, 1993)Google Scholar; Verba, Sidney and Nie, Norman H., Participation in America: Political Democracy and Social Equality (New York: Harper & Row, 1972)Google Scholar.

3 Feddersen, Timothy J., ‘Rational Choice Theory and the Paradox of Not Voting’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18 (2004), 99112CrossRefGoogle Scholar, p. 100. See also Laitin, David, Identity in Formation (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998)Google Scholar; Kuran, Timur, ‘Ethnic Norms and Their Transformation through Reputational Cascades’, Journal of Legal Studies, 27 (1998), 623659CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Owen, Guillermo and Grofman, Bernard, ‘To Vote or Not to Vote: The Paradox of Nonvoting’, Public Choice, 42 (1984), 311325CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Besen, Stanley and Farrell, Joseph, ‘Choosing How to Compete: Strategies and Tactics in Standardization’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 8 (1994), 117131CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Grofman, Bernard, ‘Is Turnout the Paradox that Ate Rational Choice Theory?’ in Bernard Grofman, ed., Information, Participation, and Choice: An Economic Theory of Democracy in Perspective (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), pp. 93103Google Scholar.

4 Aldrich, John H., ‘Rational Choice and Turnout’, American Journal of Political Science, 37 (1993), 246278CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Shachar, Ron and Nalebuff, Barry, ‘Follow the Leader: Theory and Evidence on Political Participation’, American Economic Review, 89 (1999), 525547CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Morton, Rebecca B., ‘A Group Majority Voting Model of Public Good Provision’, Social Choice and Welfare, 4 (1987), 117131CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Morton, Rebecca B., ‘Groups in Rational Turnout Models’, American Journal of Political Science, 35 (1991), 758776CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Uhlaner, Carole J., ‘Rational Turnout: The Neglected Role of Groups’, American Journal of Political Science, 33 (1989), 390422CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Ledyard, John O., ‘The Pure Theory of Large Two Candidate Elections’, Public Choice, 44 (1984), 741CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Palfrey, Thomas R. and Rosenthal, Howard, ‘Voter Participation and Strategic Uncertainty’, American Political Science Review, 79 (1985), 6278CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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.

8 A recent article, by Levine, David K. and Palfrey, Thomas R., ‘The Paradox of Voter Participation: A Laboratory Study’, American Political Science Review, 101 (2007), 143158CrossRefGoogle Scholar, uses quantal response equilibria (QRE), as opposed to Nash equilibria, inter alia to derive sensible turnout rates in large-N elections. But this is not rational choice: in the QRE equilibrium in a large-N election, the pivotal probability for the individual player is virtually zero, just as in a Nash equilibrium and as Levine and Palfrey themselves say ( Levine, and Palfrey, , ‘The Paradox of Voter Participation’, p. 155Google Scholar). A quantal response only ‘explains’ turnout in this case because it assumes that players make mistakes. Therefore, the standard rational choice paradox remains.

9 Morton, ‘A Group Majority Voting Model of Public Good Provision’; Morton, ‘Groups in Rational Turnout Models’; Uhlaner, ‘Rational Turnout’; and Schram, Arthur and van Winden, Frans, ‘Free Riding and the Production and Consumption of Social Pressure’, Journal of Economic Psychology, 12 (1991), 575620CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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12 Aldrich, ‘Rational Choice and Turnout’; and Shachar and Nalebuff, ‘Follow the Leader’.

13 As shown in Morton, ‘A Group Majority Voting Model of Public Good Provision’; Morton, ‘Groups in Rational Turnout Models’; Uhlaner, ‘Rational Turnout’; Aldrich, ‘Rational Choice and Turnout’; and Shachar and Nalebuff, ‘Follow the Leader’.

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.

16 Coate, and Conlin, , ‘A Group Rule-Utilitarian Approach to Voter Turnout: Theory and Evidence’, p. 1476Google Scholar.

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18 Feddersen and Sandroni, ‘A Theory of Participation in Elections’; and Coate and Conlin, ‘A Group Rule-Utilitarian Approach to Voter Turnout’. Experimental evidence supporting ethical group behaviour in large elections is provided in Feddersen, Timothy, Gailmard, Sean and Sandroni, Alvaro, ‘Moral Bias in Large Elections: Theory and Experimental Evidence’, American Political Science Review, 103 (2009), 175192CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Barry, Brian, Sociologists, Economists, and Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1970)Google Scholar.

20 Coate, and Conlin, , ‘A Group Rule-Utilitarian Approach to Voter Turnout’, p. 1497Google Scholar.

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.

23 Baumeister, Roy F. and Leary, Mark R., ‘The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation’, Psychological Bulletin, 117 (1995), 497529CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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’.

26 Brennan, Geoffrey and Pettit, Phillip, The Economy of Esteem: An Essay on Civil and Political Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Lazersfeld, Paul F., Berelson, Bernard and Gaudet, Hazel, The People's Choice (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1944)Google Scholar; Berelson, Bernard R., Lazarsfeld, Paul F. and McPhee, William N., Voting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954)Google Scholar.

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30 Verba, Sidney, Nie, Norman H. and Kim, Jae-On, Participation and Political Equality: A Cross-National Comparison (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978)Google Scholar; Verba, Sidney, Brady, Henry E. and Lehman Schlozman, Kay, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism and American Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995)Google Scholar; Pattie, C. J. and Johnston, Ronald J., ‘Hanging on the Telephone? Doorstep and Telephone Canvassing at the British General Election of 1997’, British Journal of Political Science, 33 (2003), 303322CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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32 ‘A large-scale field experiment involving several hundred thousand registered voters used a series of mailings to gauge these effects. Substantially higher turnout was observed among those who received mailings promising to publicize their turnout to their household or their neighbours. These findings demonstrate the profound importance of social pressure as an inducement to political participation’ ( Gerber, Alan, Green, Donald and Larimer, Christopher, ‘Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment’, American Political Science Review, 102 (2008), 3348CrossRefGoogle Scholar, p. 33). We are greatly indebted to a referee for drawing this research to our attention.

33 Nickerson, David W., ‘Is Voting Contagious? Evidence from Two Field Experiments’, American Political Science Review, 102 (2008), 4957CrossRefGoogle Scholar, shows a ‘contagion’ effect between spouses; see also McClurg, Scott D., ‘Indirect Mobilization: The Social Consequences of Party Contacts in an Election Campaign’, American Politics Research, 32 (2004), 406443CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Fowler, James H., ‘Turnout in a Small World’; Alan S. Zuckerman, ed., The Social Logic of Politics: Personal Networks as Contexts for Political Behavior (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), pp. 269287Google Scholar.

35 McPherson, Miller, Smith-Lovin, Lynn and Cook, James, ‘Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks’, Annual Review of Sociology, 27 (2001), 415444CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Marsden, Peter, ‘Core Discussion Networks of Americans’, American Sociological Review, 52 (1987), 122131CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 Wolfinger, Raymond E. and Rosenstone, Steven J., Who Votes? (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980)Google Scholar.

38 Tigges, Leann M., Browne, Irene and Green, Gary P., ‘Social Isolation of the Urban Poor: Race, Class, and Neighborhood Effects on Social Resources’, Sociological Quarterly, 39 (1998), 5377CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Blais, André, To Vote or Not to Vote? The Merits and Limits of Rational Choice Theory (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Marsden, ‘Core Discussion Networks of Americans’.

41 Timpone, Richard J., ‘Ties That Bind: Measurement, Demographics, and Social Connectedness’, Political Behavior, 20 (1998), 5377CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fiorina, Morris P., Abrams, Samuel J. and Pope, Jeremy C., Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (New York: Longman, 2005)Google Scholar; Fiorina, Morris P. and Abrams, Samuel J., ‘Political Polarization in the American Public’, Annual Review of Political Science, 11 (2008), 563588CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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.

43 Franklin, Mark N., ‘Electoral Participation’, in Lawrence LeDuc, Richard G. Niemi and Pippa Norris, eds, Comparing Democracies: Elections and Voting in Comparative Perspective (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1996), pp. 216235Google Scholar; Franklin, Mark N., ‘The Voter Turnout Puzzles’ (paper presented at the Fulbright Brainstorm Conference on Voter Turnout, Lisbon, 2002)Google Scholar; Franklin, Mark N., Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 Rotberg, Robert I., ed., Patterns of Social Capital: Stability and Change in Historical Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001)Google Scholar; Putnam, Robert D., ed., Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

45 Brody, Richard, ‘The Puzzle of Political Participation in America’, in Anthony King, ed., The New American Political System (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1978), pp. 287324Google Scholar.

46 Aldrich, ‘Rational Choice and Turnout’; Shachar and Nalebuff, ‘Follow the Leader’.

47 Mutz, Diana C., ‘The Consequences of Cross-Cutting Networks for Political Participation’, American Journal of Political Science, 46 (2002), 838855CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mutz, Diana C. and Mondak, Jeffrey J., ‘Democracy at Work: Contributions of the Workplace Toward a Public Sphere’ (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association , Chicago, 1998)Google Scholar.

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 ciN(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 AA*.

59 The cut-off rule here is: vote so long as cicA, 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.

68 Gerber, Alan, Green, Donald and Shachar, Ron, ‘Voting May Be Habit-Forming: Results from a Randomized Field Experiment’, American Journal of Political Science, 47 (2003), 540550CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

69 Franklin, Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies Since 1945; Miller, Warren E. and Merrill Shanks, J., The New American Voter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Putnam, Robert D., Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001)Google Scholar; Plutzer, Eric, ‘Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth in Young Adulthood’, American Political Science Review, 96 (2002), 4156CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Blais, André, Gidengil, Elizabeth, Nevitte, Neil and Nadaeu, Richard, ‘The Evolving Nature of Non-Voting’ (paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, 2001)Google Scholar.

70 The role of churches may be unique to the United States where privately organized religious groups often take on more expansive functions in the organization of people's lives than is true elsewhere.

71 Gladwell, Malcolm, ‘The Cellular Church: How Rick Warren Built His Ministry’, New Yorker, 12 September 2005, pp. 6068Google Scholar.

72 Wallis, Jim, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (San Francisco: Harper, 2005)Google Scholar.

73 Morris P. Fiorina, Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope, ‘Culture War’, in Fiorina and Abrams, ‘Political Polarization in the American Public’; Wolfe, Alan, The Transformation of American Religion: How We actually Practice Our Faith (New York: The Free Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

74 Campbell, Andrea, Politics Make Citizens: Senior Political Activism and the American Welfare State (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

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.

77 Yatchew, Adonis J. and Griliches, Zvi, ‘Specification Error in Probit Models’, Review of Economics and Statistics, 67 (1985), 134139CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

78 Costa, Dora and Kahn, Matthew, Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

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