Off to the Polls: The Irrational Side of Voting

As millions of Americans head to the polls Tuesday, new research sheds light on the winding history of voting in America and our motivations for doing it.

A stronger belief in government and, in some cases, a passion for a particular candidate have driven more and more voting-age citizens to the polls, currently and in the past four presidential elections, one sociologist says.

But when it comes to the underlying reason why citizens vote in general, little has changed philosophically. Our propensity to vote has always been a complex mix of feelings and strategy, writes sociologist Andrew Perrin of the University of North Carolina in the fall issue of Contexts magazine, published by the American Sociological Association.

Voting is both rational and emotional, Perrin says. "It is a ritual in which lone citizens express personal beliefs that reflect the core of who they are and what they want for their countrymen, balancing strategic behavior with the opportunity to express their inner selves to the world."

That's why reason alone can't explain, say, why a significant group of citizens voted for Ralph Nader, who ran as an independent candidate for U.S. president in 2004. "A significant, obviously small, group of people thought they were best able to express themselves by voting for Nader even though there was never any possibility he was actually going to win the presidency."

Community ballots

Voting hasn't always been the hush-hush process it is today. Rather than strutting into a closed-off booth, citizens in the late 1800s voted in the open where others could see their choices. And political parties had their ballots printed up to hand to voters, who would then likely vote a straight ticket before handing the ballot to some official in front of a community of voters.

The voting scene changed in the 20th century as the Progressive movement swept the nation, focusing on all things rational and scientific. One reform in the voting realm was the so-called Australian Ballot, the secret, government-provided ballots we see today. Elections became fairer as rules prohibited, among other practices, personal rewards from being handed out by elected officials. 

"It made voting much less what we would call corrupt now. It made it more about individual opinion and preference," Perrin said. "By making it fair, it also made it a lot less exciting, a lot less important, a lot less community-oriented."

He added, "Neither I nor anyone else would argue we should go back to that [community voting], but in a certain sense we did lose a kind of communal aspect to the voting act."

Voting as an individual

Among eligible voters, turnout in the 1800s was much greater than it is today, Perrin said. (African Americans and women weren't allowed to vote until after 1870 and 1920, respectively, when Constitutional amendments for such rights passed.) Since the early 1900s, voter turnout has hovered around a low of 45 percent and a high of 65 percent, roughly, he added.

The drop-off in voting participation is partly due to a loss of the community aspects of casting your ballot, Perrin suggests. In addition, an overall distrust in government also keeps voters at home on Election Day.

"I think there's an increase in basic cynicism in the capacity of government to be helpful in people's lives," Perrin told LiveScience.   He attributes such cynicism to the Watergate era, when political scandals ultimately led to President Nixon's resignation in 1974, along with former President Reagan's anti-government agenda.

Things are looking up, though, as more individuals realize the importance of government and along with that voting, Perrin said, noting the past four presidential elections as cases in point.

In 1992, a modern-era record-high 68 percent of voting-age citizens cast their ballots for U.S. president, according to the Census Bureau. In 1996, the figure dipped to 58 percent. Then it bounced back to 60 percent in 2000 and 64 percent in 2004.

"I think more people understand certainly with the communal feeling we got after 9/11, the huge controversy over Bush's wars and then the obvious importance of government involvement in the financial crisis right now," Perrin said. "All of that together has really made Americans recognize the power and importance of government in their lives."

He added, "So my guess is that we're going to see more voting, more involvement, more engagement." 

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.