Updated with voting statistics from the 2020 election.
Students identify costs associated with voting. Then they make predictions about who might be more likely to vote based on their understanding of opportunity costs.
Voter turnout in the United States influences the outcomes of elections. Politicians spend a great deal of time and energy trying to get their supporters to the polls. But why should this be a problem? Why don’t all eligible voters vote? Economists who have studied this question believe that the answer has to do with the benefits and costs of voting. One sort of cost—opportunity cost—is especially helpful in explaining why some people choose not to vote.
POLITICAL CONCEPT: Elections, voting
This lesson was originally published in CEE’s Focus: Understanding Economics in Civics and Government. Visit https://store.councilforeconed.org/ for more information on this publication and how to purchase it.
The student will be able to:
- List the costs and benefits of voting in an election.
- Weigh costs and benefits to predict whether a person is likely to vote.
- Begin by noting that in a democracy, voting is an important civic right. Ask: Did everyone who was eligible to vote in the last presidential election actually vote? (The answer is no, not everyone voted.) If the right to vote is so important, why do some people choose not to vote? (Answers will vary. Some answers may involve costs associated with voting, even if the students do not use that term.) After some discussion of the students’ answers, explain that the purpose of this lesson is to explore reasons why eligible voters do not always vote.
- Tell the students that there are costs associated with voting. Ask:
- What might these costs be?
(The students might mention transportation costs, the cost of child care, the cost of time taken away from work etc. Explain that these costs might be called dollar costs. Dollar costs might deter some people from voting. But other costs also may be important.)
- Apart from dollars spent, what other costs might people have to pay in order to vote? Hint: Think about how people might spend their time on election day if they decided not to vote.
(People who do not take time to vote would have more time for working, shopping, recreation, etc.)
- What might these costs be?
- By reference to the students’ answers, explain the concept of opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of doing something (voting, for example) is the highest-valued alternative a person gives up in choosing to do that particular something. A person whose most highly valued alternative is working (or at least the pay from work) would say that his or her opportunity cost of voting is lost time at work. Somebody else might identify sleeping as the most highly valued alternative; for that person, the opportunity cost of voting would be lost sleep. Emphasize the subjective nature of opportunity costs. The opportunity cost of voting will vary from person to person, and decisions about whether to vote or not will differ accordingly.
- To summarize issues of costs related to voting, display Slide 2 and discuss it with the students. The Slide refers initially to Amendment 24 to the U.S. Constitution, which states that no dollar costs (in the form of poll taxes, for example) may be attached to voting in a federal election. The Slide then identifies other costs that voters may incur. Note that most of these costs—the opportunity costs of voting—involve the time it takes to register, learn about the candidates, and get to and from the polls. A hair stylist or cab driver, for example, might lose money for every hour spent away from work; for that person, the opportunity cost of voting might be lost income.
- These examples may strike the students as somewhat hypothetical. Are prospective voters in fact influenced by considerations of opportunity cost? How could we find out? To pursue the question, display Slide 4 and discuss its contents. The Slide shows results of a Census Bureau survey of actual reasons people gave for not voting in the 2020 national election. The list is presented in reverse order, based on the responses of all registered voters. The final column lists the separate percentage responses of individuals aged 18-24. Ask the students if there are any differences between the overall registration percentages and those for the younger population. (Slide 3 is hidden, but has the information from 2016. If time, you might want to compare the two.)
(Younger people were less likely to be ill, but less likely to know why they didn’t vote and more likely to be busy. Younger people also tended to be out of town, perhaps at college, where they were not registered to vote.) In reviewing the list, note that many of the items reflect judgments about increased costs of voting or decreased benefits from voting.
- Building on the previous slide, Slide 5 highlights the percentage of the population who votes by age. As the U.S. population ages, the share of older voters is also growing. People over the age of 65 made up 23% of the citizen voting-age population in 2020, up from 21% in 2016. They now make up 26% of all voters, up from 24% in the previous presidential election.
- Still, despite the difficulties, many people do vote. Explore this point. Ask: why would any citizen vote when there are opportunity costs attached to voting and when it seems unlikely that any individual’s vote will change the outcome of an election?
(Answers will vary. Some students may mention a civic duty to vote; others may think it important to express support for certain candidates.)
- Comment on these answers: They illustrate what some people have called “the paradox of voting.” The paradox is that many people vote even when their votes are not likely to change the outcome of an election. (For more information, see the expressive voting entry in The Encyclopedia of Public Choice [electronic resource] / Dordrecht ; Boston : Kluwer Academic Publishers, c2004.) To prompt further discussion of this paradox, display and discuss Slide 6
- Given the subjective nature of opportunity costs, we would expect to find variation in voting, with some people more likely to vote than others. Ask the students to speculate about this. Who tends to vote more? Who tends to vote less?
- After some discussion of the students’ responses, display Slide 8, which identifies various characteristics of voters. Note that the comparisons may not include all groups. Go over each comparison group in Slide 8 by asking the students which category of voters in each row was most likely to vote in the 2020 general election. Students don’t need to guess the exact percentage for each category of voter, but they should attempt to identify which category of each comparison group was most likely to vote. The percentage-wise answers are found below in italics. In the discussion, challenge the students to think of reasons for the differences indicated, reminding them of the concept of opportunity cost. Many examples can be explained by the opportunity cost of voting. For example, lower-income voters may be workers who are paid at an hourly rate, and they may not be able to get away from work to vote without losing a significant amount of pay. Unemployed people may be worried more about finding work than voting, so they may view the costs of taking time to vote as too high. Homeowners are more settled than others and so are more likely to know how and where to register and vote; this familiarity with the setting reduces their opportunity cost of time needed to vote. Retirees also may have a lower opportunity cost regarding time, and so may be more likely to vote. Other examples may be explained by the benefits received. One example of a benefit is the sense of satisfaction some people find in meeting their civic duty to vote, which might explain why veterans tend to vote more than non-veterans. Other examples may be more difficult to understand, but even in these cases students often can propose interesting explanations. Answers, in percentage of voting-age citizens (SEE SLIDE 8): Slide 7 has data from the 2016 election and is hidden. If time, have students compare the two. Source: https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-585.html
- Ask the students which groups of voters they would specifically try to attract if they were running for office.
(They should note that prospective voters who are more likely to turn out at the polls may have greater sway in forming the politicians’ policies.)
- Ask the students what they think candidates for office might do to lower the opportunity cost of voting for their supporters?
(Offering transportation to the polls is one common proposal, especially for areas with large populations of elderly, retired voters. Offering help with absentee balloting also lowers the opportunity cost for voters who can’t make it to the polls.)
- Display Slide 9. Note that many citizens fail to vote. Ask the students if they plan to register and vote when they turn 18. Remind them of the potential opportunity costs and ask what they think the benefits of voting will be for them.
Review the following points with the students.
- Despite the fact that any one vote is unlikely to change the result of an election, many people voluntarily absorb the opportunity cost of voting.
- While opportunity cost is important in understanding why some people do not vote, many people vote despite the opportunity cost in order to gain the benefits— the sense of satisfaction that comes with meeting a civic obligation, for example, or with participating in an effort to affect change—that they associate with voting.
- In short, people decide to vote or not by weighing the opportunity costs they incur against the benefits they enjoy.
Extension Activity not available.
- Sue is paid an hourly wage of $10. She punches a time clock every day. Sam is paid an annual salary of $140,000 a year. He is allowed to take off two hours a day for lunch. For Sam and Sue, it will take two hours to vote. Sam votes on his lunch break, while Sue takes off work two hours early to get to the polls. What can be said about the costs and benefits of voting for these two citizens?
- Sue values voting more than Sam.
- Sam values voting more than Sue.
- Sue’s opportunity cost in terms of lost wages is higher than Sam’s.
- Sam’s opportunity cost in terms of lost wages is higher than Sue’s.
- Which is not an opportunity cost of voting in a U.S. federal election?
- A fee charged for voting
- Wages lost while voting
- Time taken to learn about the candidates and their positions on issues
- Gasoline used to drive to the polls
Have the students write a short essay supporting or opposing one of the following propositions:
- The United States government should pay people to vote in order to increase voter participation.
- The United States government should institute mandatory voting as is currently the policy in Australia, where failure to show up to vote can result in penalties (typically a fine of $20).
- The United States government should conduct an advertising campaign to encourage young people to vote.
(The students should indicate, in responding to any of the propositions above, how the costs and benefits of voting are changed by the proposal in question.)