Positive psychology


The Psychology of Voting Behavior

By Carol Parker Thompson, Ph.D.

Voter turnout has been decreasing over the last several decades. 

For example, in the 2008 Presidential election out of 207,643,594 eligible voters in the nation, only 132,645,504 or less than 64% of the people voted.

In the 2016 Presidential election there were 250,055,734 in the voting age population of which there were approximately 230,585,915 eligible voters.
Yet only 60.2% of those potential voters went to the polls.

It has been reported that 90 million voters did not vote in 2016. Even non-voters say that voting is important, so to what do we attribute falling voting turnout? Are infrequent voters disillusioned, indifferent, or filled with a sense of futility—believing that their one vote will not make a difference?

Who are the non-voters? What are the reasons or excuses given for not voting? Can voting behavior be changed, and if so how?

The California Voter Foundation (CVF) recently released a state-wide survey that described non-voters as “disproportionately young, single, less educated and more likely to be of an ethnic minority than infrequent or frequent voters.” This description could likely apply to other states as well.

The reasons most Americans frequently give for not voting include the following:

1. They believe that their vote will not count.

2. They are too busy.

3. Voting registration requirements are confusing.

4. Apathy. They do not see the point in voting.

5. The lines are too long.

6. They don’t like the candidates.

7. They can’t get to the polls.

To those of us who believe that voting is a privilege and a responsibility, an important part of being a good citizen—these excuses are not acceptable.
Given that non-voters believe that their “reasons” for not voting excuse them from voting, can voting behavior be changed?

Yes, it can. To alter voting behavior, we need to look to psychologists to see what motivates and influences people when they vote, and to political scientists for ways to change people’s voting behavior.

Dr. Tamara Avant, Department Chair for Psychology at South University, Savannah described the psychological factors that explain why we vote and choose certain politicians:

“Voting is viewed as an expression of who people think they are.” We use politics as a means of sharing our values with others.

Voting is habit-forming.

Voting shows our membership in a large group. “People are often motivated to vote because they want to fit in.”

People perceived as having credibility, intelligence and status influence our voting behavior.

Fear is another motivating factor—fear of traumatic events and natural disasters. We choose the candidate who we believe will best protect us.

The candidate’s persuasive ability to present information with strong arguments, facts, and logic influences our voting behavior.

Political scientists have studied procedures for changing people’s voting behavior. The following methods have proven to be effective in increasing voter turnout.

Dr. Donald Green, political scientist at Columbia University believes that children should be taught by parents and teachers that voting is important.

Children need to get that message “early and well” to have an impact on later voting, he writes.

Dr. Green has also found that “the personal touch”—phone calls, letters, signs, and Facebook posts, coupled with peer pressure, also described as “name and shame,” will increase voter turnout.

Voting is a behavior. If we understand why people are not voting, changes can be made to encourage greater voting participation. Perhaps we can make it easier and more convenient to vote.

Michigan is one of the few states left that does not allow early voting, absentee ballot voting for no reason, nor online voting. At last count 37 states allow online voting in some form or another by fax, email or Web portal.

Online voting is not only convenient but is thought by supporters to increase turnouts in elections.

Convenience may come at a cost, however. In a Washington Post article, Neil Jenkins, an official in the Department of Homeland Security, was quoted as saying, “We  believe that online voting, especially online voting in large scale, introduces great risk into the election system by threatening voters’ expectations of confidentiality, accountability and security of their votes and provides an avenue for malicious actors to manipulate the voting results.”

Then there are the frustrations often experienced by online users—technical problems, getting onto the website, voting for their chosen candidate, etc.

Do the benefits of online voting outweigh the risks? Should they? Do we currently have or will we ever have the absolute certainty that anything online is absolutely secure? 

Meanwhile, should Michigan consider early voting, or voting by absentee ballot for any reason?

Whatever the process is to encourage eligible citizens to go to the polls on Election Day, we need to find it and use it increase voter turnout. This is the only way that we will have a government of, for, and by the people.

Polls are open from 7:00 A.M. until 8:00 P.M.

Contact Dr. Thompson at:  caroltmcc@comcast.net