Voting: Costs and Benefits

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  • 0:02 Voting Participation
  • 1:11 Costs of Voting
  • 3:10 Rational Choice Theory
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

In a country as large as the United States, it's highly unlikely that one person's vote will decide the outcome of a presidential election. Does this mean the costs of voting outweigh the benefits? This lesson explores this question.

Voting Participation

Do you know who really won the 2012 presidential election? It was none of the above! That's right - approximately 94 million eligible voters chose not to participate. That's around 30 million more people than voted for Obama. In fact, no U.S. president in the last century came close to garnering as many votes as there were people who didn't participate.

Studies show that most eligible voters feel that political participation is commendable. Though political participation includes voting, it can be any involvement in politics and government, such as campaigning, attending meetings or even participating in a protest.

So then, why do people choose to not participate? Political participation can be difficult. Eligible voters must find available time, money and resources in order to take part.

Costs of Voting

Let's take a look at some of the perceived costs and benefits of voting. By costs and benefits, we mean the sacrifices compared to the advantages. A cost-benefit analysis works like this: when costs outweigh the benefits, people have little incentive to participate. When benefits outweigh the costs, people can be easily persuaded to participate.

For example, if I have to give up eating chocolate cake for one whole month just to lose one pound, it's not worth the effort to me. I love chocolate cake, so that's not enough of an incentive to persuade me to participate. However, if I can lose one pound a week by giving up broccoli, well, then I can be persuaded to participate. I don't care for broccoli, and I'd like to lose a few pounds.

Studies show that many people find the costs of voting to simply outweigh the benefits. For example, one study showed the following popularly cited reasons why people didn't vote:

  • Too busy or had schedule conflicts
  • Out of town or was away from home
  • Time and convenience problems
  • Illness or disability
  • Not interested or felt vote would make no difference
  • Did not like candidates or campaign issues

Interestingly, very few people cited transportation or registration problems. Instead, most eligible voters who don't vote seem to find the process too time-consuming and inconvenient. They perceive the 'cost' as being too high.

Rational Choice Theory

Perhaps, therefore, it's unreasonable to expect people to participate in the political process because the costs naturally outweigh the benefits. This view is supported by the rational choice theory. This theory is a general principle that assumes people make logical decisions that provide them with the greatest benefit and are in their best self-interest. Under the rational choice theory, voting is illogical and irrational behavior because it doesn't provide a sufficient benefit.

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