The Mystery of the Voters Who Don't Vote


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Americans are known around the world for their love of liberty and democracy. Many Americans have fought and died to protect their system of government and way of life. Free elections are central to that system of government. Together with safeguards for protecting individual rights, free elections are the heart of American democracy.

Yet many Americans do not vote. Only about half of all eligible voters vote in presidential elections. 

Read the Handy Dandy Guide and the mystery. Read the clues. Be careful. While all the clues are correct, only some are useful in solving the mystery. Decide which clues are most relevant to solving the mystery. Use the clues and one or more of the ideas from the Handy Dandy Guide to figure out a solution to the mystery.

Handy Dandy Guide

  1. People choose.  People choose the alternative which seems best to them because it involves the least cost and greatest benefit.
  2. People's choices involve costs.  Cost is the second best choice people give up when they make their best choice.
  3. People respond to incentives in predictable ways. Incentives are actions or rewards that encourage people to act.  When incentives change, people's behavior changes in predictable ways.
  4. People create economic systems that influence individual choices and incentives.  How people cooperate is governed by written and unwritten rules.  As rules change, incentives change and behavior changes.
  5. People gain when they trade voluntarily.  People can produce more in less time by concentrating on what they do best.  The surplus goods or services they produce can be traded to obtain other valuable goods or services.
  6. People's choices have consequences that lie in the future. The important costs and benefits in economic decision making are those  which will appear in the future.  Economics stresses making decisions about the future because it is only the future that we can influence.  We cannot influence things that have happened in the past.


In this lesson, given a series of clues, you will evaluate their applicability to voter behavior, and will indicate what basic economic principles best describe voter behavior.


Which of these clues are most relevant? Click on each link for more information.

  1. Because of "Motor Voter" legislation and other innovations, it is relatively easy for most Americans to register to vote. --  
  2. At the federal, state and local levels, there are many elections in the United States. An American who voted in all the elections for which he or she was eligible would do a lot of voting. --  
  3. In presidential elections, long lines of voters often form at the polls. --  
  4. It can be difficult for voters to find reliable information about candidates and issues -- especially local candidates and state or local issues addressed in referenda. --
  5. Each state elects two United States Senators. --  
  6. Few elections in the United States are ever decided by one or two votes. (Although the 2000 Presidential election came very close!) --  
  7. There are two kinds of elections -- primary and general. --,002&dsc=Primary_and_General_Elections  
  8. The 26th Amendment to the Constitution made 18 the legal voting age.  
  9. Voting takes place in polling places. --

Evaluate the clues in this interaction:


[Flash version of interactive]


People decide whether to vote or not vote, taking into account the costs and benefits associated with the choice. What does it cost to vote? Some time and effort spent registering, gathering information about the candidates (Clues 2 and 4), waiting in line at the polling station (Clue 3), and so forth. Not a high cost, you might say, especially not for citizens who value their participation in the electoral process. But many citizens see little benefit in such participation. The odds are that no single vote will determine the outcome of an election, they say (Clue 6), and the outcomes don't matter all that much to them anyway. Any cost at all, then, seems too much. Let others do the voting, these non-voters say, in effect: we'll "free ride" on the good citizenship of the voters and benefit as much or as little as they do from the outcomes.


What might be the effect of holding major elections on national holidays?