Amazingly, turnout is negatively correlated with the perceived chances that one vote will make a difference—meaning the less likely you are to think your vote will actually matter, the more likely you are to vote.There's an aspect of my own thinking about voting that these answers don't really capture, though it may be implicit in some of them. I am probably in the one third of respondents who would mention helping my chosen candidate(s), though of course I'm aware that the odds are infinitesimal that my vote will be decisive . Since 2004, I have also phoned voters in every congressional and presidential election from the comfort of my home computer. I think of this as supervoting: in a season of calling I may have a dozen meaningful conversations with undecided voters (leaving aside GOTV and voter reigstration calls), and perhaps make a difference to a handful of them.
If citizens realize that their vote won’t affect the electoral results, why do they vote at all? Is it the sticker?—In a way, yes. Citizens receive extrinsic benefits from voting that are unrelated to the chances that their vote will actually matter. We spent the Election Day talking to voters in two Boston suburbs. We asked them all a simple question, “Why did you vote?” Two-thirds of voters first mentioned extrinsic benefits while only one-third mentioned their concern for the results of the election.
“I always vote.” “It’s a civic duty.” “Many have fought for our right to vote.” “Voting gives you the right to complain.” These were the types of answers we received. Most voters made no mention of issues, candidates, or policies. When asked about whether their vote would change the election results, most acknowledged that the chances were low. Nonetheless, many held out hope saying, “You never know” or “The election could be close.” It appeared that most voters had never even thought of the chances that their vote would matter until we asked them, and some admitted so. This observation tells us a lot about why people vote. If forced to think about it, most voters know that they won’t change an election result; but they don’t care. They benefit from voting, regardless of the electoral outcome. Voters enjoy wearing stickers, expressing their views, fulfilling their civic obligation, and earning the right to complain. For them, that’s reason enough.
I know that these votes won't be decisive either. But. With the 2010 election just passed, when the headwinds were so strong and I so badly wanted to avoid making calls, an element of what pushed me on is fresh in my mind. There's an element of magical thinking in it. I thought of my behavior as a kind of proxy: the more (or less) I forced myself to do, the more (or less) other engaged Democrats would also do, because we'd all be subject to the same psychological pressures. I was trying to will away the enthusiasm gap.
I think that there's some similarity in this to the way some people who pray think about prayer -- if their thinking about a personal God is at all complicated. The act is intrinsically beneficial to the doer and therefore must have some nebulous impact on the universe. It's a participation in God's will -- not instead of trying to influence God, but in hopes that thinking correctly about what you want will somehow make it more likely to be what God wants too, and therefore more likely to happen. Somewhat sublimated superstition.
Maybe a vote is a prayer. It's certainly a gesture of faith. If I don't do it, who will? There's a mystery in participation.