For 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?