The Not So Simple Act of Voting
Russell J. Dalton and Martin P. Wattenberg
In today's increasingly complex political world, what has been called "the simple act of voting" ( Kelley and Mirer 1975) is no longer quite so simple. With more party options to choose from in most of the world's established democracies -- and in the United States many more voting choices to make -- voters' decision-making capabilities are being tested more than ever. Adding to the public's task is the expanding governmental agenda. In addition to their traditional responsibilities of ensuring the economic and physical well-being of their citizens, governments are now regularly being called upon to deal with numerous matters that were not on the political agenda just a generation ago. These include protecting the environment, guaranteeing the rights of consumers, arbitrating moral issues like abortion, and ensuring equality of opportunity for minorities and women.
This chapter provides a broad comparative assessment of research on voting behavior in advanced industrial democracies. This is an extremely large, and rapidly growing literature, all of which cannot fit into a single chapter. 1 Moreover, there are many aspects of electoral behavior that are specific to one nation, or at least not generalizable across most systems. Therefore, we have chosen to focus on the evolution of research on what we feel is the central question of electoral behavior: how voters in advanced industrial democracies deal with the increasingly difficult task of guiding governments via the ballot box.
On the one hand, several developments have significantly helped Western publics to meet this challenge. These societies have experienced an information explosion through the expansion of the mass media, thereby substantially decreasing the costs of obtaining political information ( Graber in this volume; Ranney 1983; Semetko et al. 1991; Neuman 1986). It is easy to forget that our contemporary world of instant news and 24-hour cable news services stands in marked contrast to the information environment of even one generation ago. In addition, steady increases in the educational level of Western publics have presumably increased the political skills of contemporary electorates. With more political information available to a more educated electorate, it might be hypothesized that today's voters no longer need shortcuts or cues to guide their decisions. More citizens now possess the level of political skills and resources necessary to become self-sufficient in politics ( Inglehart 1990, chap. 10; Dalton 1984). Instead of depending solely on elites and reference groups, such voters should now be able to deal with intricate political issues and make their own decisions.
On the other hand, any increase in the public's ability to deal with complex political issues has to be balanced against the rise in the complexity of politics itself. Issues such as health care reform, nuclear power, global warming, and national industrial policies challenge the abilities of even the experts. American voters are being asked to make decisions that range from judging the needs for school construction bonds to selecting the president of the United States; Europeans are deciding on town councilors as well as the future of European integration.
The actual balance between the abilities of voters and the demands involved in their making political decisions is a central controversy in electoral research that we will review in this chapter. Still, most analysts believe that voters must rely on some cues and political shortcuts to make their decisions. As Samuel Popkin ( 1991, 218) writes, "the use of information shortcuts is ... an inescapable fact of life, and will occur no matter how educated we are, how much information we have, and how much thinking we do." Consequently, our review of the electoral behavior literature focuses on the cues that citizens still need to guide their choices. The kinds of cues used by voters may have changed over time, but the process of employing cognitive shortcuts remains intact.
Any discussion of voting behavior is ultimately grounded on basic assumptions about the electorate's