The Economics of Voting: What Do You Mean My Vote Doesn't Count?


This lesson printed from:

Posted October 18, 2004

Standard: 4

Grades: 9-12

Author: Cindy Crain, ED.D., Dwight R. Lee, Ph.D.

Posted: October 18, 2004

Updated: September 26, 2007


This lesson explores the costs and benefits associated with voting in national elections. Specifically, the concepts of rational apathy, rational ignorance and expressive voting are explained.


Cost/Benefit Analysis, Incentive


  • Explain the costs and benefits of voting.


U.S. citizens aged 18 years or older are eligible to vote in national political elections. But will they? People 18 –20 years of age historically have shown poor voter turnout in elections, and economics explains why such behavior can be rational from the non-voting individual's perspective. Specific concepts to be covered in this lesson include rational ignorance, rational apathy and expressive voting. The questions covered in this lesson include the following:

  1. What does the axiom “Your vote doesn't count” mean?
  2. What are rational ignorance and rational apathy?
  3. Why do as many people vote as they do, given that no one vote is likely to determine the outcome of the election?
  4. What are some costs and benefits associated with voting in national elections?


The Economics of Voting: What Do You Mean, My Vote Doesn't Count?

[NOTE: You may want to instruct the students to find the percentage of voters in each age group that voted in the last presidential election and to record the percentages.]

According to data obtained from the Statistical Abstract of the United States , in the 2000 presidential election the voting-age population of people 18 to 20 years old was 11.9 million. Of that population 40.5 percent reported they were registered to vote, but only 28.4 percent reported they voted. This pattern of voter behavior was not a one-time aberration. In fact, of all eligible voter population groups, 18-to-20-year-olds have consistently been the least likely to vote in national elections. Does such voter behavior on the part of the young mean they are uncaring, irresponsible members of society; or, does such voter behavior represent individual rationality?

VoteThe Founding Fathers believed that a concerned and informed electorate was necessary to establish and maintain an efficient and effective democratic society. Eligible voters were expected to take time to study the issues and candidates, discuss these issues and candidates at public meetings, and then carefully weigh the relevant information before deciding how to vote.

Although an informed citizenry is desirable from a social point of view, it's not clear that individuals will find it personally desirable to become politically informed. The reason has to do with cost. Obtaining detailed information about issues and candidates is a costly endeavor. Many issues are complicated, and a great deal of technical knowledge and information is necessary to make an informed judgment on them. To find out what candidates really believe (and how they will act on those beliefs if elected) requires a lot more than listening to their campaign slogans. It requires studying their past voting records, reading a great deal that has been written either by or about them, and asking them questions at public meetings. Taking the time and trouble to do these things is the cost that each eligible voter has to pay personally for the benefits of being politically informed.

What are the benefits of being politically informed? Some people simply enjoy being informed; it is a form of entertainment, like going to the movies or parties. These people will be willing to make an effort to acquire some information on public issues just for the sake of knowledge. The other benefit from being informed has nothing to do with satisfying intellectual curiosity. Being politically informed provides prospective voters with the knowledge they need to influence social decisions in directions that will yield them the greatest benefit. Unfortunately, this does little to motivate most people to become informed because the benefit in question does not seem to amount to much. The probability of one person's vote having any effect on an election is practically zero. With millions voting in national elections, each citizen is safe in assuming that his or her vote really doesn't count, at least in terms of being decisive.

So for most people, including eligible voters 18 to 20 years of age, the costs of becoming politically informed are noticeable, while the benefits are negligible. As a result, most people limit their quest for political information to listening to newscasters or political pundits, casual reading, and conversations with friends and family. Even though most people would be better off if everyone became more informed, it apparently is not worth the cost for most individuals to make the effort needed to become informed. They will receive benefits from the awareness of others whether they study the issues or not. And if no one else becomes informed on the issues, an individual who does not become informed will not be able to change things noticeably, no matter how politically aware she or he is. Therefore, voter apathy is not the result of moral decay or lack of patriotism in our society. It's simply the result of individuals acting rationally. This phenomenon is known as rational ignorance or rational apathy.

The implications are very interesting. For one thing, legislators have an easier job than they otherwise would. With most of the public poorly informed on complex issues, elected representatives are under less pressure to be informed themselves. They will be able to score points with their constituents back home for policies that give the appearance of solving problems, whether they do or not. Since the effects of many policies are hard to predict, even by experts, we can expect a great deal of legislation to be passed that aggravates the problem it was intended to solve.

Lack of political awareness on the part of the public also makes it easier for politicians to get away with exaggerated claims and promises as well as false and misleading advertising. Whether we are dealing with a politician promoting his or her candidacy or a salesperson promoting his or her product, such as a car, there is a tendency to exaggerate the truth if it will help convince the consumer to vote for, or buy, the product. The more consumers know about a product, the less advantage can be realized by false advertising. And the fact is that most people spend more time and effort sizing up the alternatives when they buy a car than when they vote for a political candidate. Polls consistently indicate that the majority of the people of voting age do not even know who their congressional representatives are, much less how those representatives stand on specific issues. When people buy a car, they at least kick some tires and take a test drive; more often than not, they have an experienced mechanic check it out if the car is pre-owned. People are motivated to become somewhat informed in these cases because, as opposed to voting on election day, the decision they make on a car is the decision that determines what they get. This fact reduces the benefits that a salesperson can realize from gross misrepresentation, though it does not eliminate it entirely. But don't expect to hear the outrageous whoppers from salespersons that politicians tell routinely: salespersons can be sued; politicians cannot.

ElectionBut if this analysis is correct, why did 28.4 percent of 18-to-20-year-olds vote in the 2000 presidential election? An important explanation is that there is an expressive benefit from voting-a benefit having nothing to do with the election's outcome: People feel good about expressing support for, or opposition to, particular policies and candidates. And since no one vote is likely to affect the outcome, it costs a voter effectively nothing to achieve expressive satisfaction by voting. So if a person feels good about expressing support for “helping the poor” or “protecting the environment,” he or she can vote for government programs that claim to accomplish these noble goals (or for candidates that support them) at almost no personal cost, no matter how much these programs will cost-for example, in higher taxes-if they pass. While expressive benefits have the desirable effect of motivating more people to vote, they do little to motivate people to vote on the basis of information rather than emotion.

Class discussion question one: From an economics perspective, what are the benefits and costs of voting in national elections?

[BENEFITS: Voting is a benefit, in three ways: (a) people feel better when they vote (which is why some of them display stickers that say 'I Voted,') because in voting they can overtly show good social behavior--the act of being a good citizen: (b) some people enjoy the entertainment value (consumption benefit) of collecting information on issues and candidates as a means of satisfying intellectual curiosity: (c) voting provides people an opportunity to express themselves in favor of (or against) candidates and issues they favor (or oppose) emotionally.

COSTS: It takes time to attend community events and read newspapers and periodicals on the political issues. Acquiring information on a candidate's voting record takes time. Once candidates are elected, they may not vote as they said they would vote prior to being elected. Therefore, a person is much more inclined to be rationally ignorant and not vote (voter apathy), especially because the chance of one person's vote deciding the outcome of an election is effectively zero.]

Class discussion question two: Do the costs and benefits of becoming informed on the issues and voting in national elections differ from the costs and benefits of voting in local elections? Why or why not?

[In general one would think that becoming informed would be more costly on national issues than on local issues. National issues involve complicated knowledge about the national and international effects of economic, scientific, and foreign policy that is largely irrelevant to local issues. Also, local issues are closer to home and typically concern things that we have some knowledge about merely because we live in the area. Also, people can usually see a closer connection between the benefits they receive and the decisions made on local issues than they can see in the case of national issues. The cost of going to the polls and voting is about the same whether you are voting in a local election or a national election.]


Most economists agree that voting is one of the best methods for the general public to transmit information to political authorities on the value of government services. But there are costs and benefits associated with voting. Becoming politically informed is costly, as is taking the time to register and go to the polls to vote. These costs are not large, but they are much larger than any private benefits realized by shifting political decisions in the direction the voter prefers. A benefit of that sort is effectively zero given the miniscule probability that any one vote will decide the outcome of an election, particularly a state or national election.

But many people do vote, so they must realize personal benefits from voting even though their votes don't decide election outcomes. From the economist's perspective, the question isn't why do so few people vote, but why do so many vote? The most likely answer is that people realize an expressive benefit from voting-a benefit having nothing to do with the election's outcome: People feel good about expressing support for, or opposition to, particular policies and candidates. And since no one vote is likely to affect the outcome, it costs a voter effectively nothing to express support for policies, even though these policies, if enacted, are not in the voter's private interest.


  1. Would an economist be surprised that so few people vote? Why or why not? [If the economist considers only the costs and benefits that result from determining the outcome of an election by voting, then he or she would be surprised by how many people vote, not by how few vote. This is true because the personal cost of voting is far greater than any benefit the voter can expect to receive from determining the outcome of the election. On the other hand, if the economist considers the benefit many people realize from being socially responsible citizens and expressing their support for those politicians and policies they agree with, then it is not surprising that as many people vote as do.]
  2. How does the economic perspective on voting differ from the civic-virtue perspective? [The economic perspective on voting is concerned with explaining observed voting behavior, not with making judgments on whether that behavior is good or bad. The civic-virtue perspective is concerned with the social responsibilities people have and how they should behave in carrying out those responsibilities. An economist can offer an explanation of why many people do not become politically informed, or do not vote, while still feeling strongly that citizens have a social responsible to become politically informed and vote.]
  3. In recent years certain laws have been passed that make it easier to register and vote. From the economic perspective, do these laws make politicians more or less responsive to the will of the people? [Probably less responsive, but how much less responsive is difficult to say. The more interested and informed people are about political issues, the more likely they are to take the trouble to vote. Therefore, those people who become voters only after laws have reduced the costs of voting can be expected, on average, to be less informed than those who voted when the costs of registering and voting were higher. With the average voter being less informed, the information about the will of the people that is communicated through voting will be less complete and accurate. This makes it more difficult for politicians to know what the will of the people really is, and more difficult for them to respond to it. It is hard to say whether this effect is large or small. One could make the opposing argument that while making it easier to register and vote reduces the responsiveness of politicians in the short run, it might increase it in the long run by encouraging more people to become involved in the political process, which could motivate them to become more informed.]
  4. How does rational ignorance on the part of the voters make life easier for politicians? [The less voters know about the issues and how effective politicians are addressing them, the more latitude politicians have to pursue their own interests at the expense of the general public. Just as pre-owned automobile salesmen can charge higher prices for poorly maintained cars when their customers have little information about automobiles, so politicians can impose higher taxes for less beneficial public policy when their customers (citizens) are largely ignorant of what good public policy is and how much it should cost.]


Activity 1:

Access the U.S. Constitution online . Research the history of the 26th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Briefly explain why congress believed it necessary to pass this amendment.

[Possible answer: 18-year-old U.S. citizens were required (drafted) to fight in the Viet Nam War, but prior to 1971 18-year-olds were not allowed to vote in national elections. Congress considered it unfair to draft its 18-year-old citizens while not allowing them to vote.]

Activity 2:

Access the Statistical Abstract; Section 7: Elections document.

Discussion question: Why are people aged 65 and older more likely to vote than people aged 18 to 20?

[answer: There are many possible answers. It is less costly for people 65 and older to take the time to vote, especially if they are retired. Voting is more of a social event for people 65 and older; it provides a chance to socialize with other members of the community at political meetings and at the polls. Also, older people probably have stronger views on political issues than young people, and may therefore realize more expressive satisfaction from voting than younger people do.]