The paradox of the paradox of voting

I wrote my dissertation about the paradox of voting, which is the problem that rational choice theorists have in explaining why people vote. You are more likely to be killed on the way to the polling station than affect the result once you’re inside it — so why vote? The puzzle interested me as soon as I heard of it and I still often think about it.

The answer is that people take into account not just the instrumental benefits of voting. They also take into account a variety of factors that can be loosely gathered under the umbrella term of “civic duty”. The benefits that people get from performing their civic duty outweigh the costs of voting.

But what about people who clearly go way beyond the call of civic duty? This guy travelled 600 miles just to vote in the US Presidential election (via Bernard Salmon).

That is a puzzle to me. But it is clear that this election is enthusing people to an extent that may never have been seen before. Barack Obama in particular is said to have engaged young people and black people in the US political process like never before. Early voting numbers are reported to be high. And now a person whose family has voted Republican for three generations has driven 600 miles to vote for Barack Obama.

It’s worth remembering that it’s not just Obama that is creating this extra interest. I heard a woman on the radio a few days ago saying that she will be voting for the first time in her life — for John McCain. She doesn’t trust Obama because of his inexperience.

It looks like the USA sees itself as being at an important cross-roads, for a whole host of reasons. They want to get this decision right.


  1. I’ll be interested to read a handful of the inevitable avalanche of books which will be written about this election, to see whether anyone accurately pins down exactly why so many people have engaged. Is it raging against the current administration, or Obama’s (or Palin’s) rhetoric, or the fact that both candidates have thrown so much money at their media campaigns. Or maybe it’s the media itself – after all, most of us were still struggling on dial-up 8 years ago; to be able to watch a live video stream of a rally, whilst Twittering your opinions via text was but a pipe dream.

    Whatever it is, it can only be good news – for all the reasons you mentioned.