Civic duty and "pleasure" as explanations for voting:

Both Jim Lindgren and many commenters on our earlier posts on voting suggest that the real explanation for why people vote is that they they feel they have a duty to do so. This is the standard explanation for voting in the academic literature and it makes intuitive sense. If you ask people why they voted, most will indeed probably say that it was because they had a civic duty to do so.

However, the question remains, why would people think they have a duty to do something that makes no difference? We don't normally believe in a duty to do futile acts. The reason why people feel they have a duty to vote is because they tend to believe that voting makes a "difference," even if a very small one. If they thought otherwise, very few would still believe they had a duty to vote. To be sure, an alternative explanation is that they think they have a duty to vote because they have been indoctrinated into believing this by the government, particularly in the public schools. While that may be true to some extent, mass voting long predates large-scale indoctrination of this kind, and indeed long predates the existence of public schools (which were not established in most of the United States until the mid to late nineteenth century). Moreover, it would be hard to understand why this kind of indoctrination is so much more successful than other such efforts in relatively free societies.

The same point applies to arguments that people vote because they get "pleasure" from it. I highly doubt that many people enjoy the actual process of voting, which mainly consists of standing in line and then filling out a form. For that reason, I am skeptical about Jim's suggestion that the benefit voters get from casting a ballot is "like going to a movie or a football game." Movies and football games are entertaining and fun (at least to fans). Voting is not. Very few people regularly choose to stand in line or fill out forms as a leisure activity. The real "pleasure" that people get from voting (to the extent that they get any) is the sense that they have done their duty. But this in turn merely gets us back to the question of why they think they have such a duty in the first place.

UPDATE: In response to this post, Orin Kerr writes:

When an event is far away, we tend to ignore the practical consequences of it and instead latch on to a very incomplete vision of what the event may be like. So if a co-worker says, "do you want to go to Vegas with me 6 months from now?," you might be happy to accept because the abstract mental image of going to Vegas seems great. It's not until the trip is around the corner that you realize that the trip will be expensive, you have other things to do, you don't necessarily want to spend time with your co-worker, and the like.

Applying this idea to voting, it suggests to me that Jim may be right about why people vote even if Ilya is right that people don't like to wait in line and fill out forms. When people think about voting in the abstract, they focus on the rush of it; the feeling of participating, of taking responsibility, and the excitement of not knowing who is going to win. Sure, they don't like to wait in line and fill out forms. But when they decide to vote they aren't thinking about that, just like they aren't thinking about what a pain it is to go to Vegas when the trip is six months away

The problem with Orin's argument is that, unlike the trip to Vegas, the decision to vote can easily be reversed, even at the last minute. There are no nonrefundable airline tickets, hotel reservations, etc. Therefore, even if it is true that, in thinking about a decision months ahead of time, people don't focus on the costs (which I'm skeptical about), they surely do realize the costs by the time election day comes around. Moreover, I highly doubt that most people even think about the decision whether or not to vote many months in advance.

UPDATE #2: Frank Cross, one of the commenters to Orin's post writes:

I think the comparison to voting for all stars, or American Idol, or other polls is suggestive.

Ilya's theory doesn't apply well in these cases, I don't think the selection of a player to the all star game will yield benefit for many other Americans, and I don't think my single vote for the player will likely make a difference in the outcome.

On American Idol, people can vote simply by calling in on a toll-free line while watching the show. There is therefore virtually no cost to doing so; assuming you would be watching the show during that time period anyway, the only possible "cost" is the diversion of part of your attention way from the TV screen for 30 seconds or so. If you had to take an hour to go to a polling place to vote on AI, I think very few people would do so (even those who like the show). The fact that the producers have created a toll-free line for callers suggest that they realize that the voters are unwilling to pay even a very small cost to participate (a 1 minute long distance call probably costs no more than 10 or 15 cents).

Voting for sports all-stars is a very different phenomenon from political voting. The people who fill out all star ballots generally have a strong interest in the sport in question and actually enjoy the process of thinking about which players should get in and which ones shouldn't. All-Star ballot voters are a small minority of the public, probably even of sports fans. Moreover, all star game voters can legally "stuff the ballot" by voting many times, which greatly increases the chance of affecting the outcome. Casting several hundred or even several thousand votes for your favorite player is a much stronger incentive to vote than being able to cast just one. Major League Baseball deliberately encourages ballot-stuffing because they know it increases "turnout" and interest in All Star game elections.

A small minority of people are "political fans" and feel the same way about politics as sports fans do about sports. But the vast majority of people who vote do not in fact have this kind of strong interest in politics, and of course stuffing the ballot in a political election can land you in jail!