Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Get out the (Costly) Vote: Institutional Design for Greater Participation

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Get out the (Costly) Vote: Institutional Design for Greater Participation

Article excerpt


Institutions designed to induce greater participation have a long legacy in countries all over the world. Belgium has the oldest existing compulsory voting system, introduced in 1892 for men and in 1949 for women. Over the years, 31 countries had followed suit, instating sanctions for political abstention. Nowadays, 19 countries have de facto punishments for nonparticipation. While western countries without mandatory voting exhibit what are perceived as rather low turnout rates (e.g., in the United States, since 1970, election turnout has been between 50% and 55% during presidential election years, and between 35% and 40% during nonelection years), countries with some abstention sanctions unsurprisingly show rather high participation rates, with turnout often exceeding 90%, regardless of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. (1)

While participation is at the core of democracy, there is an ongoing debate in the political sphere as to the value of institutions designed to uniformly increase participation. On the one hand, having a greater fraction of the population participate in the political decision-making process is considered more democratic. On the other hand, there is concern that introducing fines for abstention, or prizes for participation would induce the "wrong" voters to show up at the booth. That is, if participation is costly, only sufficiently informed voters would find it worthwhile to vote. Rewarding participation essentially lowers this cost, thereby inducing less-informed voters to vote as well. Thus, from an information point of view, there is an underlying trade-off. More voters imply more pieces of information being communicated. However, the additional information may be of lower quality, and suddenly gain greater voice in determining electoral outcomes.

Our goal is to provide a theoretical framework for discussing the trade-offs inherent in increased participation. In addition, we test predictions on both behavior and institutional performance using controlled laboratory experiments.

Specifically, as a benchmark model, we consider an information aggregation setup in which a majority election determines which of two alternatives will be collectively implemented. Each individual receives some private information regarding which is the superior alternative. The accuracy of individual signals is randomly distributed. After the private signal and its accuracy are realized, each voter decides whether to abstain or cast a costly vote, where the cost of participation is fixed and uniform across all voters.

The first step in our analysis is to characterize equilibria in such environments. Symmetric equilibria in this setup take a simple form of threshold strategies. That is, each individual has a cutpoint accuracy such that they vote if and only if the accuracy of their private signal surpasses that cutpoint, thereby generating a form of selective participation. Voting in this setup is a form of public good and, as is common in such setups, voters do not internalize "enough" the positive externality of voting. When the electorate is large enough, there is less voting than is socially optimal.

When the state has some funds to allocate to elections, a natural way to encourage participation is to consider the optimal (welfare maximizing) mechanism, subject to a budget constraint determined by these funds. The optimal mechanism of this sort entails payment schemes to voters that are contingent on the full tally of votes. Such mechanisms are rarely observed in reality. However, sanctions that are tantamount to fines are used in countries with compulsory voting and lotteries amongst participants had been suggested (e.g., Proposition 200 on the Arizona November 2006 ballot suggested entering primary and election day voters in a lottery for a $1 million prize). More generally, the use of lotteries to collect funds targeted at public goods is both common empirically and theoretically justified. …

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