Electoral psychology: Why people vote … or do not vote

Electoral psychology: Why people vote … or do not vote


Written by Maria Cohut, Ph.D. on September 28, 2020 — Fact checked by Zia Sherrell, MPH

According to some recent surveys, almost half of all United States citizens who are eligible to vote do not report to their polling stations to cast their ballots. In this Special Feature, we look at some of the psychological explanations behind voter apathy.


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Earlier this year, the Knight Foundation — who are a U.S.-based nonprofit — publicized the data they collected through The 100 Million Project. This is a large survey that aims to get to the root of why so many U.S. individuals choose not to vote.

The Knight Foundation note that in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, around 43% of eligible voters did not cast their ballots.

To find out why this was, The 100 Million Project surveyed “12,000 chronic nonvoters nationally and in 10 swing states,” as well as “a group of 1,000 active voters who consistently participate in national elections and a group of 1,000 young eligible voters (18–24 years old).”

Based on the respondents’ answers, the Knight Foundation observed some common themes among many nonvoters. For example, they tended to lack conviction that their votes would count and feel under-informed about current social issues.

In this Special Feature, we delve deeper into the psychology around voting and not voting to find out more about the driving factors behind civic engagement.

If you would like to check your registration status or register to vote, we have added some useful links at the bottom of this article.

Why might people vote?

First of all, who is most likely to vote? In terms of demographics, women have consistently had a higher turnout than men, and older adults are more likely to vote than younger adults.

Although many issues, including health status, can influence whether or not a person decides to cast their vote, when it comes to psychological factors, things seem to be getting increasingly complicated.

The field that studies the psychology of voting and not voting is called “electoral psychology,” and it looks at the factors that may influence an individual in their voting choices and whether or not they choose to vote at all.

Such factors may include questions of personal identity, ethics, and emotional responses.

One of the psychological characteristics that researchers have traditionally linked with a likelihood to vote is altruism.

According to a study by Prof. Richard Jankowski, from the Department of Political Science at the State University of New York at Fredonia, “weak altruism is the single most important determinant of the decision to vote.”

In his study, Prof. Jankowski used data from the National Election Survey Pilot Study in 1995 to see if he could find a link between various measures of “humanitarianism” and voter turnout.

He found that people who demonstrated “weak altruism” — that is, those who are likely to engage in a certain act if it is likely to benefit someone else or at least cause no harm to someone else — were the most likely to cast their vote in elections.

Other research also hypothesizes that, besides giving them a strong sense of civic duty, people may also choose to vote in order to maintain their social standing and connections.

A 2016 study in the British Journal of Political Science seems to confirm that idea. Its authors found that civic engagement, including activities such as voting, tends to be viewed in a positive social light.

Because of this, people may feel motivated to vote so as to reap the social reward of being well regarded by their community.

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