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Avoiding the Vote: A Theory and Field Experiment of the Social Costs of Public Political Participation

- December 20, 2008

Christian Grose sent me this article, along with the comment that their paper is somewhat relevant to my article with Edlin and Kaplan. Grose writes, “Our argument differs from yours in that we examine (1) voting when there is no secret ballot, such as during the Iowa caucus; and (2) we examine costs and benefits to the individual that are socially induced.” Here’s the abstract of the Grose and Russell article:

Citizen vote choice in modern democracies is almost always a private act, yet the act of turning out to vote is a social and public activity. Does voting in public increase or depress turnout? We present a theory of the effect of social pressure and ostracism on political participation, arguing that both social costs and social benefits can affect individual behavior. No theoretical work on voter turnout has argued that social costs deter participation, but it is a fundamental explanation of the decision not to participate. We test our theory by conducting a randomized field experiment during the 2008 Iowa Democratic presidential caucus, sending mailers to registered Democrats suggesting different reasons for voting. We include three treatments: (1) one telling citizens of the date, time, and location of the caucus; (2) one telling citizens the caucus is a public meeting where neighbors and friends will be attending; and (3) one telling citizens that the caucus does not have a secret ballot and that their neighbors and friends will be attending. We find that citizens are more likely to vote when information costs are reduced and when they are told the caucus is a public meeting. However, we find that turnout is reduced when citizens are told their vote choices must be revealed to their neighbors, thus increasing social costs. Unlike nearly all other field experiments of voter turnout, our experiment is one of the only to find a suppression of the vote as a result of a treatment. These findings provide insights into individual behavior in a social context, a rejection of one explanation for heavy voter turnout in 19th century America, and practical insights for campaigns interested in mobilizing voters to presidential caucuses.