The Economics of Voting


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votingFor several years after the 1960's,  many voters stayed away from the polls on election day. Why did many people choose not to vote? This was a puzzle to many people interested in the well-being of our democratic system. Economists tried to explain the puzzle. They suggested that American's that didn't vote were acting rationally, in that the costs associated with voting (such as spending time to register, rearranging work schedules, getting to the polls, and gathering information on the candidates) appeared to outweigh the benefits (influencing the outcome of an election or gaining the satisfaction of being a good citizen). But, more recently, things have changed. In presidential elections, at least, voter participation rates have been rising again. What is going on here? What caused participation rates to go down for awhile, and then to begin rising? In this lesson, you will examine possible reasons for these changes.

As you examine the factors that might be involved, you will learn what economists have had to say about voter participation. Many economists think that participation rates are influenced by costs and benefits. If the costs of voting (e.g., learning about the candidates, taking time to register) seem high, and the benefits seem low or uncertain, many people won’t vote. To increase participation rates, then, it would be important to decrease the costs Americans may associate with voting.

In this lesson you will examine costs, benefits and other factors that have influenced voter participation rates, in the past and up to the present.


You will identify some factors that have contributed to low voter turnout in past elections. Then you will identify certain ways of reducing the costs of voting, thus increasing voter turnout. By the end of this lesson, you will have researched and reported on factors that have contributed to the steady increase in voter turnout in the past two presidential elections.


In 1960, voter turnout reached almost 65%, but in the following five elections the percentage decreased at a steady rate. The percentage increased slightly in 1984 and 1992 before it fell again, reaching a record low in 1996 when less than half (49.1%) of the voting population actually voted. Since then, the percentage of eligible U.S. voters who actually voted has increased again, reaching its highest percentage since 1968. What caused the downward trend from 1960 to 1996, in which the costs of voting apparently outweighed the benefits? And what contributed to the turn around after 1996, when participation rates for eligible voters began to rise again? To find out more, go to . Then answer the following questions.

  • What seems to be the pattern of voter turnout in U.S. presidential elections?
  • What factors might help explain this trend? How does this background information square with the economists' view that voters are influenced by costs and benefits? Let's take a closer look.

Some Costs of Voting

  • Voter registration: Many states require voters to register several weeks in advance of elections.
  • Time off from work: Elections are held on weekdays so many people need to re-arrange work schedules in order to vote.
  • Time preparing to vote: Gathering information about the candidates takes time.
  • Getting to the polls: Polls may be located in places that are not convenient for some people to get to.
  • Time in Line: There is often a line of people waiting to vote at the poll.

Some Benefits of Voting

  • There is a chance that your vote will make a difference in the outcome of the election. Some recent elections have been very close.
  • You will gain satisfaction from performing your duty as a citizen.

  1. List some other costs of voting.
  2. List some other benefits of voting.
  3. Which cost do you think has the most impact on voters?
  4. Which benefit do you think has the most impact on voters?

An important goal of our political system is to encourage voter participation. How might we reduce the costs of voting or increase the benefits? Work with a partner and list as many ideas as you can on a sheet of paper.

Age seems to be a factor that affects voter turnout. In 1972, the minimum age for voting was reduced to 18, opening up voter participation to a more youthful crowd. But since 1972, the youth turnout (18-24) in voting has exceeded 50% only once, in 1972.  The total U.S. population has increased, of course, and the total number of young people voting has increased accordingly, from 14.5 million in 1972 to approximately 23 million in 2008. Also, from the 2004 to 2008 election, the total number of Americans voting increased by 3.4 million. But did this increase in total voters mean an increase in the percentage of U.S. citizens that voted?

youthvoteWith a steady decline in voter participation rates after 1972, youth voter turnout reached an all-time low in 1996, when only 37% of U.S. citizens aged 18-24 voted. This trend soon ended, however. Youth voter turnout increased to 40% in 2000 and to 47% in 2004. In 2008, it matched the previous high set in 1972, at 52%. Also, since 1996, more Americans aged 25 and older have been voting; the percentage increased from 61% to 66% in 2008. Economists offer several explanations of this upward trend. For starters, some states have adopted  "Election Day Registration" and these states had three of the top five totals for youth turnout (Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Maine). And some states have made progress in locating polls at convenient locations, such as at state motor vehicle agencies, thus decreasing costs and increasing voter participation rates. The cost of voting in some districts may also have been reduced by programs in which sample ballots and information regarding polling places are mailed out to prospective voters or distributed door-to-door.


Voter participation is influenced by costs and benefits. State officials can't do much to influence the benefits people might derive from voting, but they can do some things to decrease costs. By implementing strategies to decrease costs, officials can increase voter participation rates. When participation rates increase, elections can more accurately reflect the will of the eligible voting population. While this dynamic doesn't start or end with a particular age group, the participation of young voters clearly has an important impact.


Use these two websites (  and ) to learn about election turnout rates and the voting behavior that goes along with it. Write a one-page report reflecting the data you came across in these articles, as well as other articles you have read in this lesson. Some links within this lesson's resources will be particularly helpful (in relation to ethnicity, gender, age, etc.). In your paper, identify and explain the factors that seem most influential in determining voting behavior.


Voter participation seems to be lowest when the economy is in good shape. Visit 270 to Win and scroll through the 'Select the Year' option above the map. Read through the 'Issues of the Day' below the map from 1972 to 2008. Look at the years in which the economy is in good shape and the years in which it is in bad shape. Also, note other issues that were important during those election years. Now visit Youth Voting and compare these dates with the percentage of all citizens voting in 'Graph 1'.

  1. What trends do you notice?
  2. What year appears to have the highest eligible voter turnout?
  3. What were the 'issues' noted during this election?
  4. What similarities does it share with the 2008 election?
  5. What two consecutive years have the lowest eligible voter turnout?
  6. What similar 'issues' do these elections have in common?

Print out your note-taker and turn it in to your teacher.