At first it may appear obvious that people vote because it is their rational decision. However, this would be a conclusion without definition in the context of the question. As Anthony Downs points out Economic definition of “rational man” is one who moves towards his goals in a way which, to the best of his knowledge, uses the least possible input of scarce resources per unit. In other words, we are always trying to maximise our own utility through the cheapest possible means.
With this in mind, the argument appears that in order to vote there must be benefits associated with such action. This thrown up many problems when trying to gain an understanding of why people take part in elections. Many reasons have been developed in trying to ascertain voting as irrational action. Free riding, whereby a person receives the associated benefits without actually contributing anything, is one idea that has been put forward. Olson proposed the electorate to be a latent group in which free riding is impossible to prevent due to the number of people involved.
In the real world low electoral turnouts are evidence of this, particularly at local level where people are willing to stand back and let others bear the voting costs. Hume also illustrated this problem in his idea of the Marsh Draining Game in which two farmers who would both benefit from the draining of land, hold back and wait for the other to act in hope that they can also reap the benefits. Another key idea in proving the irrationality of voting, supported by Downs, is that if self interest.
The argument here is that people will only vote if the benefits to themselves will outweigh the costs incurred. As it is unlikely that an individuals vote will make any difference to the policy outcome justification of voting comes only from having the pivotal vote: your vote would be the one to win the election for your favoured party, thus providing you with the associated rewards of its policy. The probability of this is minute considering the population size of the electorate, so therefore, bearing in mind the self interest motives involved, one can conclude that it is irrational to vote.
Empirical evidence has been used to back up the claim that we act as self interested individuals in an economic sense: the average human being is about 95 percent selfish in the narrow sense of the term (J. Mansbridge, The Rise and Fall of Self-Interest in the explanation of Political Life in Beyond Self Interest). The pivotal vote idea can be linked to action seen in the 1997 General Election. Leeds North East was considered the pivotal constituency for the Labour Party.
There was a marked rise in the turnout here as possibly people thought they had an increased chance of casting the deciding vote. Downs actually created a quantitative measure for calculating the rational probability that an individual would choose to vote: Basic self interest model of voting P? B+D? C P – subjective probability that vote will bring about different policy outcomes B – net utility gain from difference in policy outcomes (benefits of party A – party B) D – private benefits of act of voting (this would be very high if the person was in fact the electoral candidate)
C – Cost of voting In this inequality P is also a function of the number of people voting; obviously if only 3 citizens vote the probability of having a pivotal vote will be much higher than if there were 52 million people voting. This model provides a mathematical explanation of how the utility gained must outweigh the cost in order for an economically rational person to vote as the value of a citizen’s vote is tiny: hence it is outweighed by the very small cost of voting (Downs).
Relating it to recent events, one can show how there were rational motives for voting, if only negligible, in both the 1997 and 2001 elections. The 1997 election saw turnout increase dramatically. People were desperate to elect Labour but were afraid that free riders would prevail thus increasing the probability of a pivotal vote were they to go to the polling station. Also, the increase in tactical voting could be considered a rational act, as people would rather vote for their second choice if it increased the likelihood of removing the Conservatives from the seat and not wasting a vote on their first choice.
In previous years such people may have stayed at home. The 2001 election saw the opposite effect: the electorate believed Labour to succeed with another landslide victory and did not feel the costs would be worth the benefits of their individual vote, thus turnout dropped. The costs involved in voting can be anything from the cost of gathering information or the cost of travel to the polling station, to the time spent voting. However, it has been argued that such costs can be minimised by using cues or short cuts to information.