Abstinence is Not Indifference - Lowering Voting Costs Leads to Higher Participation and Better Informed Voters

Stephan Tontrup (New York University School of Law)
Rebecca Morton (NYU Abu Dhabi)

Abstract: The recent US presidential election had the lowest turnout of the last 20 years. Most established democracies have experienced a steady decline of participation since the 1970s. As voting costs are usually small, low participation is often taken as an indication of indifference or apathy about the democratic process. In this study we present evidence that individuals value their voting right and the democratic process, even when they have no intention of voting. We conducted a field experiment at the election for the student parliament of the University of M√ľnster, Germany. In this election only 20 percent of the eligible students submit a vote. However, when we offered compensation for voting costs, 95% of the students participated in the election. The random price mechanism we used for offering the compensation allowed us to identify the students who would not have voted without being paid. After the election we presented the subjects with an incentivized surprise quiz. Our results show that the students significantly increased their knowledge about the election in order to submit an informed vote. The result holds also for the students who would not have voted without the payment. The improvement of the subjects is highly correlated with the valuation subjects indicated to have for their voting right before the election. Our findings show that abstinence should not be translated into indifference. Lowering voting cots like voter registrations in the US may be an effective instrument for policy makers to increase participation with better informed voters.