Why do people vote?

barack obama voting
Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama votes on Election Day in 2008. See more pictures of Barack Obama.
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Astraphobia, or fear of lightning, might seem silly, but the odds of getting struck in your lifetime are relatively high: 1 in 10,000 [source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. Selachophobia, by comparison, is far more unfounded, since the chances of becoming shark bait at the beach are much lower: roughly 1 in 11.5 million [source: Reilly]. But statistically speaking, at least, neither of those phobias is nearly as irrational as the act of voting.

In 2008, a trio of number crunchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research calculated the probability of a single vote in a presidential election actually making a difference and determining who ends up in office. The not-so-civically-inspiring results? One in 60 million [source: Gelman, Silver and Edlin]. On a slightly brighter note, citizens of political swing states New Mexico, Virginia, New Hampshire and Colorado have more power at the polls, with a 1 in 10 million probability of swaying outcomes, which is far from a sure thing, but at least beats the risk of encountering Jaws [source: Rampell].


Nevertheless, more Americans voted in the 2008 presidential election than ever before [source: CBS News]. Bucking statistical irrationality, a politically motley mob of 131 million adults exercised their democratic right to toss in their two cents on who ought to govern the country. Possibly due to the presence of a black candidate, minority voters turned out in especially high numbers that year, with roughly 5 million more heading to polling places than during the 2004 election. Older constituents between 65 and 75 years old also broke previous voting records [source: Kronholtz].

It isn't a big surprise that those senior citizens in 2008 really rocked the vote, though. People over 65 years old are the most likely age demographic to vote, probably because crucial benefits like Social Security and Medicaid are managed by the government [source: Brandon]. Regular churchgoers, married couples and even people with especially active sweat glands are also more apt to vote, according to numerous studies [source: Lawrence]. General correlations aside, however, political scientists, psychologists and statisticians are still left scratching their heads as to exactly why those elderly, religious, palm-sweating groups are internally motivated to head to the polls.


Beyond the Voter's Illusion

voting sticker
Voting makes people feel good.
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Whereas people may have a more vested interest in local races that hit closer to home, a national presidential election isn't such an easy sell. Sure, there are the patriotic pitches that emphasize the value of democracy, civic duty, and allegiance to a political party or candidate. But when sizing up rhetoric against the real-world, drop-in-the-bucket impact of a single vote, pulling that lever every four years in the United States makes so little logical sense that psychologists nicknamed it the voter's illusion [source: Munsey].

The theory of the voter's illusion describes checking a ballot box as an exercise in altruism [source: Munsey]. Consequently, what drives people to the polls isn't so much a desire to benefit a candidate, party or issue, but rather to keep a civic ripple effect going and thus benefit the entire nation. Like sports fans doing "the wave" in a stadium, active voters supposedly inspire those around them to follow suit. And just as a solo fan might not want to look like a spoilsport by refusing to hop up and flap his arms in the air, voting is also a way of fitting in with a national identity and dodging societal guilt heaped on non-voters who aren't proudly flaunting "I Voted" stickers. In other words, people vote because it looks good, and it makes them feel good.


Or, the decision to vote might just run in people's blood. Studies published in 2008 comparing the civic habits of identical versus fraternal twins carried out at the University of California, San Diego, calculated that genetics accounts for roughly 60 percent of a person's voting record [source: Choi]. Other behavioral genetics research also suggests that parents, particularly when they have party affiliations and political outlooks in common, pass along their voting habits to their kids [source: Alford et al]. And tying together the biological and psychological underpinnings of voting, a 2009 Duke University study demonstrated how male voters become emotionally invested in the outcome of a presidential election. Saliva samples showed elevated testosterone levels in men who had voted for the winner, while the hormone dropped in those who supported the loser, possibly sparking feelings of victory and defeat, respectively [source: Kanazawa].

Finally, if someone simply doesn't get that much of a thrill out of performing his or her civic duty, election results also play a significant role in deciding whether people return to the polls four years later. According to multiple studies, people who vote are much less likely to do it again if their candidate loses. Meanwhile, if someone refrains from voting, and his or her preferred candidate wins, he or she also is less likely to vote the next time around, because the electorate apparently got the job done without that additional ballot. The best-case scenario for turning non-voters into voters is for their candidates to lose, allowing them to perhaps experience tinges of guilt that might propel them to the polls the next go around [source: Kanazawa]. In which case, people might not vote so much because it makes them feel good, but because they'll feel bad if they don't.


Author's Note: Why do people vote?

I am, admittedly, a presidential election junkie. I tune in to the debates, listen to the pundits and their projections and watch the returns roll in until every state is colored in red or blue. But I doubt that I would enjoy the process so much if I didn't vote. Once I punch my ballot and put on my "I Voted" sticker, a slight weight is lifted from my shoulders knowing that I've done everything in my democratic power to bring my desired candidate into office. But why do I feel like such a saint when my vote only has a 1 in 60 million chance of making an actual difference in a presidential election? From researching that very question, it turns out that voting is a product of sociocultural, biological and psychological factors that are far more complex than the simple act of pulling a lever or checking a box. Some people are literally hardwired to show up at polling stations, whereas others unapologetically abstain. Either way, it's incredible that for all of the time, effort and money poured into the American voting system, it remains one of the most irrational habits we maintain.

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  • Blais, Andre and Rheault, Ludovic. "Optimists and skeptics: Why do people believe in the value of their single vote?" Electoral Studies. Vol. 30, Issue 01. March 2011. (June 13, 2012) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261379410000971
  • Choi, Charles Q. "The Genetics of Politics." Scientific American. Oct. 14, 2007. (June 13, 2012) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-genetics-of-politics
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  • Kanazawa, Satoshi. "Why Do People Vote? I" Psychology Today. Nov. 08, 2009. (June 13, 2012) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/200911/why-do-people-vote-i
  • Kanazawa, Satoshi. "Why Do People Vote? II" Psychology Today. Nov. 22, 2009. (June 13, 2012) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/200911/why-do-people-vote-ii
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