The tax debate in Washington this week has a tangible impact on every family in the country — one that can be measured in literal dollars and cents. (In fact, you can calculate your personal impact here.) The scenario is a testament to the fact that outcomes of elections do matter; if Congress had a different makeup of Democrats and Republicans today, that dollar amount in your bank account next year likely would look different, too.
Because of this, it seems logical to think that when people vote, the consequences should have some real value to them. Congress sets policies over Medicare, unemployment, tax breaks, funding for local transportation and services — all kinds of things that, depending on the party in power, translate to thousands of dollars of benefits for the individual voter. What, then, would most people pay to single-handedly dictate the outcome of an election?
“Suppose that you alone could determine whether a Democrat or a Republican represents your Congressional district by paying a specific dollar amount,” a pair of political science researchers suggested in a survey of 1,000 voting-age adults. “You may borrow from friends or take out a loan if necessary. How much would you be willing to pay to ensure that a Congressman from your preferred party will win the office?”
Ryan Enos, an assistant professor of government at Harvard, and graduate student Anthony Fowler were startled by the response. Fifty-five percent of people considered the open-ended invitation and went with … nothing.
"If you could pay a certain amount to decide the winner of an election, that’s a way of telling us how much you think you benefit from that election,” Enos said. “And a lot of people think they benefit at a zero dollar amount.”
The finding raises an even bigger question about all of these people: Why, then, do they vote?
“The reason it becomes sort of a difficult question is that the theoretical model that people have drawn up tells us that nobody should vote, yet we obviously know that people do vote — we see that every year,” Enos said. “The question is ‘Why is that?’”
Theoretically, voting shouldn’t be worth the effort. The cost is pretty high — voters have to research the candidates, take time off of work, get to the poll and stand around in line. And the benefit is minimal. In another question, Enos and Fowler asked people how likely they thought it was that their one vote would determine the winner of a presidential election. Most people figured they’re more likely to be struck by lightning this year, to win the state lottery jackpot or to get in a car accident tomorrow. They know, in other words, that their votes generally don’t make a difference.
So if people know their votes don’t matter, and they wouldn’t be willing to pay even a dollar to make them matter if they could, what’s going on here?
“What this tells us,” Enos said, “assuming we’re getting at their true attitudes with that question, is they must be paying the cost of voting for other reasons.”
And none of these reasons have to do, necessarily, with caring about politics.
Perhaps people vote out of a sense of civic responsibility or because they fear other people will later ask them if they voted or because they want to wear that little “I voted!” sticker. Some people may even vote because, well, they enjoy it. Enos and Fowler asked respondents to compare how much they enjoy voting with a series of other activities. Voting out-ranked filing taxes, going to the dentist, going to the post office and grocery shopping (but rated below watching television and having coffee with friends).
“It’s not clear everybody is doing it for the same reasons,” Enos said. He and Fowler are next planning to study these reasons — and whether certain types of people are more likely to be motivated by different ones.
They raise the prospect that some people place no value on their votes because they think there's no difference between the two parties, something that recent polling and Tea Party rhetoric suggests. If that’s true, it doesn't matter who gets elected. To actually parse whether or not this is what's going on in peoples' minds, Enos said they will conduct more surveys and hone different questions.
In the most recent survey, they did find some people willing to pay to pick their representatives, even as much as a thousand dollars. These voters do seem to connect election outcomes with Washington policies with their everyday lives — they do seem to care about politics.
“That’s more or less part of our point,” Fowler said. “Some people do care a lot about politics; some people are able to articulate it, but those people are highly unrepresentative of the rest of the population. They’re more educated, they’re wealthier, they’re more likely to go to church. And, sure enough, those are the people who are better represented in Washington.”