This November’s elections set a voter turnout record: 49 percent of the voter-eligible population showed up at the polls, the highest midterm turnout seen since 1914. Why? Most commentators have concluded it was because voters thought the stakes were sky-high. With congressional control in the balance at a time when politics is highly polarized, many Democrats and Republicans thought the outcome was all but life-or-death for democracy. Pre-election polls found that about two-thirds of Americansbelieved this election was the most important midterm in their lifetimes; 93 percent of voters in battleground districts said their vote mattered just as much as in a presidential election; and enthusiasm about voting was at its highest level in any midterm in more than two decades.
That interpretation is consistent with the findings in our new book, “Why Bother? Rethinking Participation in Elections and Protests,” due out in January. Although political scientists have often emphasized that many people do not turn out because of the “costs” of voting (time, effort and so forth), we focus on the costs that people pay by not voting — especially when they believe much is at stake. Seen through that lens, the high turnout this year is hardly surprising.
We find that while voting is indeed costly, abstaining can impose costs as well. Many people suffer subjective and psychological costs if they don’t vote, which we call costs of abstention. These costs are in the form of a psychic tension, or dissonance, when people fail (or think they’ll fail) to take part — but that’s true only when they care a lot about the outcome. When they care a lot and also see the race as close, these moods intensify, pushing them still more strongly to go to the polls. This same logic applies to other forms of collective political participation, like protesting, as we found in major protests in Brazil, Turkey and Ukraine.