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Informal Social Networks and Rational Voting


Classical rational choice explanations of voting participation are widely thought to have failed. This article argues that the currently dominant Group Mobilization and Ethical Agency approaches have serious shortcomings in explaining individually rational turnout. It develops an informal social network (ISN) model in which people rationally vote if their informal networks of family and friends attach enough importance to voting, because voting leads to social approval and vice versa. Using results from the social psychology literature, research on social groups in sociology and their own survey data, the authors argue that the ISN model can explain individually rational non-altruistic turnout. If group variables that affect whether voting is used as a marker of individual standing in groups are included, the likelihood of turnout rises dramatically.

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1 It may be objected that this is not rational choice since it rests on psychological, not material, incentives. Although we do not explore it in this article, we are indebted to Hugh Ward for the argument that many material benefits (e.g. employment contacts) flow from approval within informal social networks.

2 Rosenstone Steven J. and Mark Hansen John, Mobilization, Participation and Democracy in America (New York: Macmillan, 1993); Verba Sidney and Nie Norman H., Participation in America: Political Democracy and Social Equality (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).

3 Feddersen Timothy J., ‘Rational Choice Theory and the Paradox of Not Voting’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18 (2004), 99112, p. 100. See also Laitin David, Identity in Formation (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998); Kuran Timur, ‘Ethnic Norms and Their Transformation through Reputational Cascades’, Journal of Legal Studies, 27 (1998), 623659; Owen Guillermo and Grofman Bernard, ‘To Vote or Not to Vote: The Paradox of Nonvoting’, Public Choice, 42 (1984), 311325; Besen Stanley and Farrell Joseph, ‘Choosing How to Compete: Strategies and Tactics in Standardization’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 8 (1994), 117131; and Grofman Bernard, ‘Is Turnout the Paradox that Ate Rational Choice Theory?’ in Bernard Grofman, ed., Information, Participation, and Choice: An Economic Theory of Democracy in Perspective (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), pp. 93103.

4 Aldrich John H., ‘Rational Choice and Turnout’, American Journal of Political Science, 37 (1993), 246278; and Shachar Ron and Nalebuff Barry, ‘Follow the Leader: Theory and Evidence on Political Participation’, American Economic Review, 89 (1999), 525547.

5 Morton Rebecca B., ‘A Group Majority Voting Model of Public Good Provision’, Social Choice and Welfare, 4 (1987), 117131; Morton Rebecca B., ‘Groups in Rational Turnout Models’, American Journal of Political Science, 35 (1991), 758776; and Uhlaner Carole J., ‘Rational Turnout: The Neglected Role of Groups’, American Journal of Political Science, 33 (1989), 390422.

6 Ledyard John O., ‘The Pure Theory of Large Two Candidate Elections’, Public Choice, 44 (1984), 741; Palfrey Thomas R. and Rosenthal Howard, ‘Voter Participation and Strategic Uncertainty’, American Political Science Review, 79 (1985), 6278.

7 As Palfrey and Rosenthal, ‘Voter Participation and Strategic Uncertainty’, showed, and Feddersen, ‘Rational Choice Theory and the Paradox of Not Voting’, p. 103, reiterates.

8 A recent article, by Levine David K. and Palfrey Thomas R., ‘The Paradox of Voter Participation: A Laboratory Study’, American Political Science Review, 101 (2007), 143158, uses quantal response equilibria (QRE), as opposed to Nash equilibria, inter alia to derive sensible turnout rates in large-N elections. But this is not rational choice: in the QRE equilibrium in a large-N election, the pivotal probability for the individual player is virtually zero, just as in a Nash equilibrium and as Levine and Palfrey themselves say ( Levine and Palfrey , ‘The Paradox of Voter Participation’, p. 155). A quantal response only ‘explains’ turnout in this case because it assumes that players make mistakes. Therefore, the standard rational choice paradox remains.

9 Morton, ‘A Group Majority Voting Model of Public Good Provision’; Morton, ‘Groups in Rational Turnout Models’; Uhlaner, ‘Rational Turnout’; and Schram Arthur and van Winden Frans, ‘Free Riding and the Production and Consumption of Social Pressure’, Journal of Economic Psychology, 12 (1991), 575620.

10 Feddersen Timothy and Sandroni Alvaro, ‘A Theory of Participation in Elections’, American Economic Review, 96 (2006), 12711282; and Coate Stephen and Conlin Michael, ‘A Group Rule-Utilitarian Approach to Voter Turnout: Theory and Evidence’, American Economic Review, 94 (2004), 14761504.

11 Cox Gary, Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the World's Electoral Systems (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

12 Aldrich, ‘Rational Choice and Turnout’; and Shachar and Nalebuff, ‘Follow the Leader’.

13 As shown in Morton, ‘A Group Majority Voting Model of Public Good Provision’; Morton, ‘Groups in Rational Turnout Models’; Uhlaner, ‘Rational Turnout’; Aldrich, ‘Rational Choice and Turnout’; and Shachar and Nalebuff, ‘Follow the Leader’.

14 Morton, ‘A Group Majority Voting Model of Public Good Provision’; Morton, ‘Groups in Rational Turnout Models’; Uhlaner, ‘Rational Turnout’.

15 This is the Coate assumption. The Feddersen assumption is that they behave as simple rule-utilitarians, but this distinction does not affect our argument.

16 Coate and Conlin , ‘A Group Rule-Utilitarian Approach to Voter Turnout: Theory and Evidence’, p. 1476.

17 Harsanyi John C., ‘Rule Utilitarianism, Rights, Obligations and the Theory of Rational Behaviour’, Theory and Decision, 12 (1980), 115133.

18 Feddersen and Sandroni, ‘A Theory of Participation in Elections’; and Coate and Conlin, ‘A Group Rule-Utilitarian Approach to Voter Turnout’. Experimental evidence supporting ethical group behaviour in large elections is provided in Feddersen Timothy, Gailmard Sean and Sandroni Alvaro, ‘Moral Bias in Large Elections: Theory and Experimental Evidence’, American Political Science Review, 103 (2009), 175192.

19 Barry Brian, Sociologists, Economists, and Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1970).

20 Coate and Conlin , ‘A Group Rule-Utilitarian Approach to Voter Turnout’, p. 1497.

21 There are different models possible which depend on how the leader is elected and the group technology.

22 Feddersen , ‘Rational Choice Theory and the Paradox of Not Voting’, p. 106. Note that this is not a problem in the ethical agent model since in that model the individual member is simply assumed to maximize expected group utility. There is no contract between leader and member.

23 Baumeister Roy F. and Leary Mark R., ‘The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation’, Psychological Bulletin, 117 (1995), 497529.

24 Lying itself may also be unpleasant because it deceives people you care about, and the disutility of lying may increase with the importance a group attaches to the behaviour (here voting) that an individual may lie about.

25 Shachar and Nalebuff, ‘Follow the Leader’.

26 Brennan Geoffrey and Pettit Phillip, The Economy of Esteem: An Essay on Civil and Political Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

27 Lazersfeld Paul F., Berelson Bernard and Gaudet Hazel, The People's Choice (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1944); Berelson Bernard R., Lazarsfeld Paul F. and McPhee William N., Voting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954).

28 Knoke David, ‘Networks of Political Action: Towards Theory Construction’, Social Forces, 68 (1990), 10411063; Knoke David, ‘Networks as Political Glue: Explaining Public Policy-Making’, in William Julius Wilson, ed., Sociology and the Public Agenda (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1993); and Knoke David, Political Networks: The Structural Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

29 Huckfeldt Robert, Levine Jeffrey, Morgan William and Sprague John, ‘Election Campaigns, Social Communication, and the Accessibility of Discussant Preference’, Political Behavior, 20 (1998), 263294; Huckfeldt Robert, Ikeda Ken'ichi and Urban Pappi Franz, ‘Political Expertise, Interdependent Citizens, and the Value Added Problem in Democratic Politics’, Japanese Journal of Political Science, 1(2000), 171195; Huckfeldt Robert and Sprague John, ‘Discussant Effects on Vote Choice: Intimacy, Structure, and Interdependence’, Journal of Politics, 53 (1991), 122158; Huckfeldt Robert and Sprague John, Citizens, Politics, and Social Communication: Information and Influence in an Election Campaign (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Kenny Christopher B., ‘Social Influence and Opinion on Abortion’, Social Science Quarterly, 74 (1993), 298310; Kenny Christopher B., ‘The Microenvironment of Attitude Change’, Journal of Politics, 56 (1994), 715728; Kenny Christopher B., ‘The Behavioral Consequences of Political Discussion: Another Look at Discussant Effects on Vote Choice’, Journal of Politics, 60 (1998), 231244.

30 Verba Sidney, Nie Norman H. and Kim Jae-On, Participation and Political Equality: A Cross-National Comparison (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978); Verba Sidney, Brady Henry E. and Lehman Schlozman Kay, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism and American Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995); Pattie C. J. and Johnston Ronald J., ‘Hanging on the Telephone? Doorstep and Telephone Canvassing at the British General Election of 1997’, British Journal of Political Science, 33 (2003), 303322.

31 Zuckerman Alan S., Valentino Nicholas A. and Zuckerman Ezra W., ‘A Structural Theory of Vote Choice: Social and Political Networks and Electoral Flows in Britain and the United States’, Journal of Politics, 56 (1994), 10081033; Zuckerman Alan S., ed., The Social Logic of Politics: Personal Networks as Contexts for Political Behavior (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005).

32 ‘A large-scale field experiment involving several hundred thousand registered voters used a series of mailings to gauge these effects. Substantially higher turnout was observed among those who received mailings promising to publicize their turnout to their household or their neighbours. These findings demonstrate the profound importance of social pressure as an inducement to political participation’ ( Gerber Alan, Green Donald and Larimer Christopher, ‘Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment’, American Political Science Review, 102 (2008), 3348, p. 33). We are greatly indebted to a referee for drawing this research to our attention.

33 Nickerson David W., ‘Is Voting Contagious? Evidence from Two Field Experiments’, American Political Science Review, 102 (2008), 4957, shows a ‘contagion’ effect between spouses; see also McClurg Scott D., ‘Indirect Mobilization: The Social Consequences of Party Contacts in an Election Campaign’, American Politics Research, 32 (2004), 406443.

34 Fowler James H., ‘Turnout in a Small World’; Alan S. Zuckerman, ed., The Social Logic of Politics: Personal Networks as Contexts for Political Behavior (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), pp. 269287.

35 McPherson Miller, Smith-Lovin Lynn and Cook James, ‘Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks’, Annual Review of Sociology, 27 (2001), 415444.

36 Marsden Peter, ‘Core Discussion Networks of Americans’, American Sociological Review, 52 (1987), 122131.

37 Wolfinger Raymond E. and Rosenstone Steven J., Who Votes? (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980).

38 Tigges Leann M., Browne Irene and Green Gary P., ‘Social Isolation of the Urban Poor: Race, Class, and Neighborhood Effects on Social Resources’, Sociological Quarterly, 39 (1998), 5377.

39 Blais André, To Vote or Not to Vote? The Merits and Limits of Rational Choice Theory (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000).

40 Marsden, ‘Core Discussion Networks of Americans’.

41 Timpone Richard J., ‘Ties That Bind: Measurement, Demographics, and Social Connectedness’, Political Behavior, 20 (1998), 5377; Fiorina Morris P., Abrams Samuel J. and Pope Jeremy C., Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (New York: Longman, 2005); Fiorina Morris P. and Abrams Samuel J., ‘Political Polarization in the American Public’, Annual Review of Political Science, 11 (2008), 563588.

42 We also show the significance of a set of ‘social variables’ in addition to expected turnout, namely the degree of political discussion in the respondent's social network, the extent of social disapproval within the network from not voting, and length of residential tenure, which have no role in the atomistic rational choice model.

43 Franklin Mark N., ‘Electoral Participation’, in Lawrence LeDuc, Richard G. Niemi and Pippa Norris, eds, Comparing Democracies: Elections and Voting in Comparative Perspective (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1996), pp. 216235; Franklin Mark N., ‘The Voter Turnout Puzzles’ (paper presented at the Fulbright Brainstorm Conference on Voter Turnout, Lisbon, 2002); Franklin Mark N., Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

44 Rotberg Robert I., ed., Patterns of Social Capital: Stability and Change in Historical Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Putnam Robert D., ed., Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

45 Brody Richard, ‘The Puzzle of Political Participation in America’, in Anthony King, ed., The New American Political System (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1978), pp. 287324.

46 Aldrich, ‘Rational Choice and Turnout’; Shachar and Nalebuff, ‘Follow the Leader’.

47 Mutz Diana C., ‘The Consequences of Cross-Cutting Networks for Political Participation’, American Journal of Political Science, 46 (2002), 838855; Mutz Diana C. and Mondak Jeffrey J., ‘Democracy at Work: Contributions of the Workplace Toward a Public Sphere’ (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association , Chicago, 1998).

48 A constant term is included so that xi 1 = 1 for all i.

49 There may be literally hundreds of small unrelated factors that affect the cost of voting for any individual and ci is the sum of these factors for i. The central limit theorem states (loosely) that the distribution of the sum of a set of N independently distributed random variables converges to the normal as N goes to infinity.

50 Of course, there will be negative drawings from the ci distribution as well as positive ones, reflecting the benefits from voting. The model allows for only a small probability of ci < 0 since we can think of its distribution as ciN(α 0, σ 2) with the α 0 > 0 mean absorbed in the constant term.

51 Since the σ transformation does not affect significance tests, the tilde over the coefficients is dropped in what follows.

52 This assumption is discussed below.

53 To see this, add and subtract inside the bracket on the right-hand side. Then each equation takes the form , with , so each equation is identical apart from the . Hence, any solution holds for all i. If a solution exists this implies . With , so and must intersect at least once since Φ is continuous and increases monotonically; and it is easy to see there are an odd number of equilibria.

54 In other words, a player deserves punishment if he behaved badly in the previous period and/or if he deserved to be punished in the previous period but was not. He behaves badly if he did not vote when he meant to or if he did not punish someone who was guilty. We have neglected the case of a player punishing a non-G player. And we have also assumed that a G player at the start of m has no move in m.

55 This assumption can readily be changed.

56 We assume for convenience that the actual number of non-voters in equilibrium is equal to the expected number, and that the number is continuous.

57 As with non-voting, the punishment for not punishing occurs a period later.

58 , while . For simplicity, we assume: (1) that N is continuous; (2) if AA*.

59 The cut-off rule here is: vote so long as cicA, where cA = β(A + D), which implies that .

60 This is not the only way of dealing with renegotiation-proofness. If my status in the group depends in part on never having been disapproved of by the group while others have, and if this gain in my status outweighs the cost of my having to disapprove of others, it will not be in my interest to renegotiate.

61 If the other side has a majority of 2, then an increase of turnout of 1 on one's own side would lead one to vote – but rationally there should never be a majority of 2.

62 In fairness, the standard model does imply very low levels of turnout, because at very low levels the probability of an individual affecting the outcome of the election is sufficient to outweigh the costs. Beyond that level, PB can be assumed to be 0, as we do assume.

63 These in turn vary with the structure of national political institutions, although our evidence is focused on the United States and the individual level.

64 Morton, ‘A Group Majority Voting Model of Public Good Provision’; Morton, ‘Groups in Rational Turnout Models’; and Uhlaner, ‘Rational Turnout’.

65 Queries about our module of questions on the YouGov survey should be addressed to Samuel Abrams.

66 The actual turnout rate is a subject of debate and disagreement with rates ranging anywhere between 50 and 56 per cent participation. See McDonald Michael P., ‘Up, Up and Away! Voter Participation in the 2004 Presidential Election’, The Forum, 2 (2004)), issue 4, article 4, for a more thorough discussion.

67 Since too few observations are available for some states, we lose information as a result of including this variable, but the substantive results are not much affected. To make the results comparable across models, all regressions are restricted to the set of observations for which we have party contact data.

68 Gerber Alan, Green Donald and Shachar Ron, ‘Voting May Be Habit-Forming: Results from a Randomized Field Experiment’, American Journal of Political Science, 47 (2003), 540550.

69 Franklin, Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies Since 1945; Miller Warren E. and Merrill Shanks J., The New American Voter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); Putnam Robert D., Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001); Plutzer Eric, ‘Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth in Young Adulthood’, American Political Science Review, 96 (2002), 4156; Blais André, Gidengil Elizabeth, Nevitte Neil and Nadaeu Richard, ‘The Evolving Nature of Non-Voting’ (paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, 2001).

70 The role of churches may be unique to the United States where privately organized religious groups often take on more expansive functions in the organization of people's lives than is true elsewhere.

71 Gladwell Malcolm, ‘The Cellular Church: How Rick Warren Built His Ministry’, New Yorker, 12 September 2005, pp. 6068.

72 Wallis Jim, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (San Francisco: Harper, 2005).

73 Morris P. Fiorina, Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope, ‘Culture War’, in Fiorina and Abrams, ‘Political Polarization in the American Public’; Wolfe Alan, The Transformation of American Religion: How We actually Practice Our Faith (New York: The Free Press, 2003).

74 Campbell Andrea, Politics Make Citizens: Senior Political Activism and the American Welfare State (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003).

75 It may be objected that part of the effect of the discussion variable is due to those who initiate discussion being simultaneously more likely to vote and to say that discussion is frequent (thus producing an endogeneity problem). Yet we included a question that explicitly asks respondents whether they initiated political discussion, and it turns out not to matter to the results.

76 We estimate this by simply omitting political knowledge from the model and then summing the estimated effects of group turnout, discussion, tenure and disapproval.

77 Yatchew Adonis J. and Griliches Zvi, ‘Specification Error in Probit Models’, Review of Economics and Statistics, 67 (1985), 134139.

78 Costa Dora and Kahn Matthew, Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008).

* Abrams, Faculty of Politics, Sarah Lawrence College (email: ); Iversen, Department of Government, Harvard University (email:; Soskice, Department of Political Science, Duke University, and Nuffield College, Oxford (email: ). This article was originally prepared for presentation at the 2005 Comparative Political Economy Workshop at the Center for European Studies, Harvard University. The authors thank John Aldrich, Jim Alt, Geoff Brennan, Jorge Dominguez, Mark Franklin, Bernie Grofman, Peter Hall, Arthur Lupia, Philipp Rehm, Ken Shepsle, Ken Scheve, Carole Uhlaner, Hugh Ward and the participants at a meeting,‘Empirical Implications of Theoretical Models’, in 2005 at the University of California-Berkeley for helpful comments.

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British Journal of Political Science
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