Academic journal article Atlantic Economic Journal

The Electoral College and Voter Participation: Evidence on Two Hypotheses

Academic journal article Atlantic Economic Journal

The Electoral College and Voter Participation: Evidence on Two Hypotheses

Article excerpt

RICHARD J. CEBULA [*]

This paper empirically investigates the impact of the electoral college on voter participation rates across states. Two hypotheses are tested. The first argues that in states where either the Democratic or Republican party strongly dominates the other, voter participation rates are reduced the greater the degree of domination. The second states that in states where neither party overwhelmingly dominates the other, the smaller the majority of the dominant party over the minority party, the greater the voter participation rate. (JEL D70, D72)

Introduction

Under the U.S. Constitution, the electoral college system establishes a process by which would-be or actual voters in any given state know that they can vote only indirectly for candidates for the presidency. Given rational voting behavior, it is argued in this paper that, first, because of the electoral college system, the incentive to vote is diminished in those states where voters perceive or expect that their votes are less likely to have a potential impact on the outcome. Whereas, second, the incentive to vote is increased in those states where voters expect or perceive that their votes are more likely to affect the outcome. The former perception is most likely to manifest itself in those states where the composition of voters is such that the state is overwhelmingly Democratic or overwhelmingly Republican. It is hypothesized (in Hypothesis 1) that the electoral college system acts to reduce voter participation in such circumstances. [1] The second perception is most likely to be manifested in those stat es where there is proximal parity between the major political parties. It is hypothesized (in Hypothesis 2) that the electoral college system acts to increase voter participation in this circumstance.

This paper empirically investigates Hypotheses 1 and 2. In the second section, a very simple framework is provided to elucidate Hypotheses 1 and 2 and then to identify the variables in the empirical analysis. The third and fourth sections provide the empirical analysis with evidence derived from the voter participation rates in the 1996 presidential election. Findings are summarized in the fifth section.

A Simple Framework

It is argued here that the probability that a rational voter will vote depends on the expected net benefits of voting, ENBV [Downs, 1957; Riker and Ordeshook, 1973; Cebula, 1983]. In turn, the latter is an increasing function of the expected gross benefits of voting, EGBV, and a decreasing function of the expected gross costs of voting, EGCV:

ENBV = f(EGBV,EGCV) . (1)

This formulation is consistent with the position postulated by Buchanan and Tullock [1962, p. 120] that the individual "...is assumed to be motivated by a desire to further his own interest, to maximize his expected utility..." In this study, the expected gross benefits of voting for the office of president depend upon the expected net marginal value of casting a vote for the same.

H1: If an eligible Republican voter, R, resides in a predominantly Democratic state, he may regard the marginal value of his vote for president as approaching zero, as the degree to which the state of legal residence is predominantly Democratic rises.

In other words, R perceives that if he resides in a predominantly Democratic state, there may exist such a large Democratic majority in the state as to clearly nullify the value of his vote. Indeed, as the degree of Democratic dominance in the state increases, R perceives the marginal value of his vote for president as declining and approaching zero. Clearly, in the absence of the electoral college, that is, under direct election of the president by popular vote, individual R would regard his vote as having a marginal value independent of the political party dominance circumstance in his state of legal residence. In any event, it is hypothesized that given that the value of EGCV is positive, the rational R voter residing in a predominantly Democratic state becomes less likely to vote as the Democratic majority rises. …

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