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Why People Vote: Estimating the Social Returns to Voting


This article measures the social rewards and sanctions associated with voting. A series of survey experiments shows that information about whether a person votes directly affects how favorably that person is viewed. Importantly, the study also compares the rewards and sanctions associated with voting to other activities, including the decisions to recycle, volunteer and return one’s library books on time. It presents a behavioral test of the consequences of non-voting and finds that individuals are willing to take costly action in a dictator game to reward political participation. Finally, it shows that survey measures of social norms about voting are correlated with county-level voter turnout. The study adds to the growing literature documenting the important influence of social concerns on turnout and other political choices.

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Yale University, Department of Political Science, Institution for Social and Policy Studies (email:; Yale University, Department of Political Science, Institution for Social and Policy Studies (email:; Loyola University Chicago, Department of Political Science (email:; University of Mississippi, Department of Political Science (email: A previous version of this article was presented at the 2010 meeting of the American Political Science Association; other versions were presented at Harvard, UC-Berkeley, Notre Dame and Emory. Earlier versions of the article were circulated under the titles ‘Social Judgments and Political Participation: Estimating the Consequences of Social Rewards and Sanctions for Voting’ and ‘The Social Benefits of Voting and Co-partisanship: Evidence from Survey Experiments’. We thank Seth Hill and Mary McGrath for assistance. An online appendix is available at

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British Journal of Political Science
  • ISSN: 0007-1234
  • EISSN: 1469-2112
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-of-political-science
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