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Voting Paradox: A Lesson for Internet Voting

Reducing barriers to voting can in fact lower voter turnout. This seeming paradox applies in the case where a low-cost, private voting option is provided (e.g. mail-in). The reason is that social incentives play a large role in voting behaviour.

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Why do we vote? An extra vote usually does not matter, according to Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt of Freakonomics fame ( Out of 40 000 state legislature elections in the US (and 1 billion votes), one vote made a winning difference in only seven elections; in 16 000 Congressional elections, one vote made a winning difference in only one election over the past 105 years.

With such little payoff in terms of influence on the election result, and considering the time and effort to cast a public vote, one would naturally expect a low voter turnout. The economic or 'rational' choice would be to stay at home and not vote. However, it turns out that lowering the 'cost' to vote does not necessarily increase voter participation. In a Swiss voting experiment, where the government gave its citizens the option to vote privately through the mail, there was a significant decrease in voter participation! 

The authors concluded that social incentives play a large role in voter participation. Public voting allows individuals to show off their civic mindedness, which provides mutual pay-offs to the voting citizens. Where there is a private option, the public pay-off model breaks down. This result has serious implications for Internet voting or other private voting options. It may not be relevant to efforts that aim to increase accessibility to public voting.

Social media could be a way to reinforce the public aspect to voting, thus increasing the social incentive to vote. This is particularly relevant in large cities, where more anonymous living provides fewer social pay-offs in voting.

The information in this submission was obtained from the following article:
Why Vote? A Swiss Turnout-Boosting Experiment
The New York Times
November 6, 2005


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Photo of DeletedUser


Michael Traugott, a political scientist who studies elections and turnout, pointed out that we also have to consider the political climate as well.

In my state, school board and school budget elections are held in April, not part of the general election. Turnout is usually very low. But one year, there was a big controversy about a budget question in our town. Voters rejected the first budget, in an election with relatively high turnout, and a second one had to be prepared. At the election to vote on the revised budget, the turnout was over 95%.

Photo of Johan Löfström

Great! I am also believer of making local politics relevant and connected to peoples everyday life. (and I don't just mean glossy ad campaigns or mud-slinging on tv or internet)

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