Handbook of Social Choice and Voting

Handbook of Social Choice and Voting

Edited by Jac C. Heckelman and Nicholas R. Miller

This Handbook provides an overview of interdisciplinary research related to social choice and voting that is intended for a broad audience. Expert contributors from various fields present critical summaries of the existing literature, including intuitive explanations of technical terminology and well-known theorems, suggesting new directions for research.

Chapter 4: Rational choice and the calculus of voting

André Blais

Subjects: economics and finance, political economy, public choice theory, politics and public policy, political economy, public choice


According to the rational choice model of the ‘calculus of voting’, initially suggested by Downs (1957) and Tullock (1967), citizens decide to vote in elections if the expected benefits of voting are greater than the expected costs, and they abstain otherwise. The calculus of voting for an individual eligible voter is commonly stated in the following terms: B x p > C. (4.1) B is the benefit that the individual receives if his or her preferred candidate (or party) wins the election; but, given the collective nature of election outcomes for ordinary citizens, the individual receives this benefit if and only if their preferred candidate wins the election and regardless of whether the individual actually votes for the candidate. Thus, as a reward for the act of voting, B must be discounted to reflect the probability p that the outcome of the election turns on whether or not the individual actually votes for the preferred candidate. Thus, in order to support a rational choice to go to the polls and cast a vote, the expected benefit B x p must exceed the costs of voting, represented by C. The remainder of the discussion elaborates on the three terms in this inequality, plus a fourth one that is often added.

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