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To Vote or Not to Vote

To Vote or Not to Vote: The Merits and Limits of Rational Choice Theory

André Blais
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    To Vote or Not to Vote
    Book Description:

    What makes people decide to vote? In addressing this simple question, André Blais examines the factors that increase or decrease turnout at the aggregate, cross-national level and considers what affects people's decision to vote or to abstain. In doing so, Blais assesses the merits and limitations of the rational choice model in explaining voter behavior. The past few decades have witnessed a rise in the popularity of the rational choice model in accounting for voter turnout, and more recently a groundswell of outspoken opposition to rational choice theory.

    Blais tackles this controversial subject in an engaging and personal way, bringing together the opposing theories and literatures, and offering convincing tests of these different viewpoints. Most important, he handles the discussion in a clear and balanced manner. Using new data sets from many countries, Blais concludes that while rational choice is an important tool-even when it doesn't work-its empirical contribution to understanding why people vote is quite limited.

    Whether one supports rational choice theory or opposes it, Blais's evenhanded and timely analysis will certainly be of interest, and is well-suited for advanced undergraduate and graduate-level classes.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-9055-0
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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    (pp. vii-viii)
  2. INTRODUCTION. Is It Rational to Vote?
    (pp. 1-16)

    This book addresses a simple question: What makes people decide to vote or not to vote? As we shall see, the answer may not be as simple as the question.

    I start with a simple model, the rational choice model. According to it, a citizen makes up her mind to vote or not through a simple calculus. She decides to vote if, in her view, the benefits of voting are greater than the costs; if, on the contrary, the costs are greater than the benefits, she decides not to vote.

    The “calculus of voting” model was initially developed by Downs...

  3. CHAPTER 1 When and Where Are People More Likely to Vote?
    (pp. 17-44)

    My empirical inquiry starts with a macroscopic perspective. My first question is: how many people vote in a typical election? The higher the turnout, the more acute the paradox of voting. But there may be few typical elections. We need to know in which elections turnout is highest and lowest, and why. I examine cross-country variations in turnout for national elections, identify countries with particularly high and low levels of turnout, and test a number of hypotheses about the sources of variations.

    I then look at over-time variations, first determining whether turnout in a given country remains relatively stable or...

  4. CHAPTER 2 Who Votes?
    (pp. 45-54)

    It is revealing to know in which countries and for what types of elections turnout tends to be highest or lowest. In the same vein, it is important to understand what kinds of individuals tend to vote and what kinds of individuals tend to abstain. This chapter focuses on who votes and who does not. It addresses two questions: First, are the same people voting or abstaining in every election or do people move back and forth between voting and abstaining? Second, what are the main socioeconomic characteristics of those who vote?

    We may distinguish two polar images of voters...

  5. CHAPTER 3 Do People Believe that Their Vote Could Be Decisive?
    (pp. 55-82)

    We have seen in which countries turnout is particularly high and in which it is particularly low. I have identified which socioeconomic and institutional characteristics are most closely linked with turnout. I have also examined variations in the propensity to vote at the individual level. I have portrayed the socioeconomic profile of voters and abstainers.

    It is now time to return to the initial question posed in the introduction, that is, the capacity of the rational choice model to account for individuals’ decision to vote or not to vote. The core model has three basic parameters:B, the benefits of...

  6. CHAPTER 4 What Is the Cost of Voting?
    (pp. 83-91)

    The rational citizen decides to vote or not to vote on the basis of whether, in her estimation, the expected benefit outweighs the expected cost. But what is the cost of voting? In the model, this cost corresponds, on the one hand, to the amount of time one feels she needs to spend assembling and digesting the information about candidates and parties in order to decide which party or candidate to vote for and, on the other hand, to the time spent going to the poll, voting, and returning.

    Rational choice theorists have concluded that it is irrational to vote...

  7. CHAPTER 5 Is It a Duty to Vote?
    (pp. 92-114)

    Is voting only aright, and is it up to each individual to decide whether it is in her best interest to vote or to abstain, or is it also aduty, such that every citizen, in the absence of other compelling reasons such as illness, should feel obliged to fulfill her responsibility, as a member of a democratic society, to vote? In most countries, as we saw in chapter 1, the law does not make voting compulsory. The implication seems to be that voting is construed to be a right that citizens should feel free to exercise or not...

  8. CHAPTER 6 Do People Free Ride?
    (pp. 115-136)

    The decision to vote or not to vote is only one of many decisions that citizens are faced with in a democracy. And it is not the most demanding or significant from the citizen’s point of view. Other decisions raise problems that are similar to those I have discussed in the previous chapters.

    Suppose someone is greatly concerned with the quality of the environment. This person has to ponder what she should do about it. More specifically, she may wonder whether she should join an environmental group that is in the process of being formed in her city.

    According to...

  9. CONCLUSION. Rational Choice and Voting
    (pp. 137-144)

    I started my inquiry with the observation that the rational choice model of voting, in its simplest formulation, does not appear to work. An individual who takes into account the tiny probability that her vote could be decisive should rationally abstain. Yet most people vote in national elections, and most of them vote regularly. Voting seems to be a paradox.

    One may adopt either of the following positions with regard to this paradox. The first is to argue that the rational choice model is basically flawed and should be discarded. The second is to assert that it is possible to...

  10. APPENDIX A. Democratic Elections, 1972–95, and Participation Rate
    (pp. 145-148)
  11. APPENDIX B. Variables, Indicators, and Sources
    (pp. 149-151)
  12. APPENDIX C. 1993 Study of Electoral Participation among University Students: Research Design
    (pp. 152-152)
  13. APPENDIX D. 1993 Study of Electoral Participation among University Students: Question Wording
    (pp. 153-158)
  14. APPENDIX E. CSES Data, 1996–2000: Description of Variables
    (pp. 159-159)
  15. APPENDIX F. 1995 Study by Thalheimer on the Importance of P in the Decision to Turn Out: Question Wording
    (pp. 160-161)
  16. APPENDIX G. 1995 Quebec Referendum Study: Question Wording
    (pp. 162-165)
  17. APPENDIX H. 1996 British Columbia Election Study: Question Wording
    (pp. 166-168)
  18. APPENDIX I. 1996 Blais and Thalheimer Study on Reasons for Voting: Question Wording
    (pp. 169-172)