HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Value of Voting, Beyond Politics

The New York Times discusses that although psychologists and neuroscientiests have tried to determine how people make voting decisions by taking brain scans and comparing how certain messages or images activate emotion centers, none of this has helped predict people's behavior in elections any more than a half-decent phone survey.  Benedict Carey writes,

Vote_5For those who love the civic cheer and lukewarm coffee of their local polling place, an absentee ballot has all the appeal of a tax form. The paperwork, the miniature type, the search (in some states) for a notary public: it’s a tedium bath, and Pam Fleischaker, a lifelong Democrat from Oklahoma City, had every reason to take a pass this year.

Ms. Fleischaker, 62, was in New York recovering from a heart transplant, for one. And in her home state, the Democratic candidate, Senator Barack Obama, was polling hopelessly behind his opponent, Senator John McCain. She mailed in her absentee packet anyway, and hounded her two children, also in New York, to do the same.

“That one vote isn’t going to be decisive makes no difference to me,” Ms. Fleischaker said in a telephone interview last week. “Your vote is your voice, and there’s more power in it than in most of the things we do. It’s a lost pleasure, the feeling of that power.”

In recent years psychologists and neuroscientists have tried to get a handle on how people make voting decisions. They have taken brain scans, to see how certain messages or images activate emotion centers. They have spun out theories of racial bias, based on people’s split-second reactions to white and black faces. They have dressed up partisan political stereotypes in scientific jargon, describing conservatives as “inordinately fearful and craving order,” and liberals as “open-minded and tolerant.”

None of which has helped predict people’s behavior in elections any more than a half-decent phone survey. The problem is not only sketchy science, some experts say; it’s that researchers don’t agree on the answer to a more fundamental question: Why do people vote at all?

“There’s a longstanding literature looking at why any rational person would vote, when the chances of actually influencing an election are about the same as getting hit by lightning,” said John Londregan, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton. “In most theoretical models, it’s hard to get a predicted turnout above one. That is, one voter.”

Yet new models have done better, predicting elections with turnouts closer to the nation’s average of about 50 percent of eligible voters. They have also revealed some of the basic motives underlying both personal and group decisions about when to vote and why.

Casting a ballot clearly provides a value far higher than its political impact. The benefit may include side payments — say, the barbecues and camaraderie of a campaign, or the tiny possibility that a single vote may be decisive.

But recent research suggests that it has more to do with civic duty and the maintenance of moral self-image. In a series of experiments, researchers from Northwestern University and the University of California, Berkeley, have had study participants play a simple election game involving monetary rewards. A group of designated voters cast their vote for Choice A, an equal distribution of money among voters and nonvoters in the study; or B, a payout to be split only among the designated voters — a smaller group, so a higher amount. It cost money to vote, and participants could abstain at no cost.

The study authors, led by Sean Gailmard at Berkeley, called Choice A “ethical” and Choice B “selfish.” They found that ethical voting ran highest, at about 20 percent, when individual votes were least likely to affect the outcome. Selfish voting ran highest, also about 20 percent, when individuals’ choices were most likely to change the outcome.

This finding could explain why people might vote against a local tax increase but for a Congressional candidate who was likely to raise their income taxes: their vote carries far less value in a national race than in a local one.

This study and others also imply that there is a core of voters who not only turn out at the polls but also cast their ballot for the candidate or proposal they believe represents the larger good. This makes sense to those who study the evolution of group behavior. Small communities often have a scattering of people who stand up and do the right thing; their compensation is the private knowledge that they are willing to pay some cost to do what they believe is right, even if that price amounts to standing out in the cold for 15 minutes waiting to pull a lever.

“It may be a form of identity construction for individuals,” Dr. Gailmard wrote in an e-mail message. “Or it could be a duty to do the right thing, or a social norm.”

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I am an uninsured resident of Massachusetts.The Massachusetts health law is discrimination
based on income.The poor get health care,the wealthy get health care but not the middle income.
The state will fined residents for not buying into exspensive plans with high dedutables.
This is a "tax."What happens if a person cannot afford the fines?Isn't this fine considered
an unpaid tax?Isn't this a jailable offense?
How will the state enforce this law?Are they
going to jail people that can't pay the fines?

Posted by: Norma | Nov 4, 2008 11:43:57 AM

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