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A Theory of the Calculus of Voting

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  • Riker, William H.
  • Ordeshook, Peter C.

Abstract

Much recent theorizing about the utility of voting concludes that voting is an irrational act in that it usually costs more to vote than one can expect to get in return. This conclusion is doubtless disconcerting ideologically to democrats; but ideological embarrassment is not our interest here. Rather we are concerned with an apparent paradox in the theory. The writers who constructed these analyses were engaged in an endeavor to explain political behavior with a calculus of rational choice; yet they were led by their argument to the conclusion that voting, the fundamental political act, is typically irrational. We find this conflict between purpose and conclusion bizarre but not nearly so bizarre as a non-explanatory theory: The function of theory is to explain behavior and it is certainly no explanation to assign a sizeable part of politics to the mysterious and inexplicable world of the irrational. This essay is, therefore, an effort to reinterpret the voting calculus so that it can fit comfortably into a rationalistic theory of political behavior. We describe a calculus of voting from which one infers that it is reasonable for those who vote to do so and also that it is equally reasonable for those who do not vote not to do so. Furthermore we present empirical evidence that citizens actually behave as if they employed this calculus.

Suggested Citation

  • Riker, William H. & Ordeshook, Peter C., 1968. "A Theory of the Calculus of Voting," American Political Science Review, Cambridge University Press, vol. 62(1), pages 25-42, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:cup:apsrev:v:62:y:1968:i:1:p:25-42_1
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