Get Out the (Costly) Vote: Institutional Design for Greater Participation
Institutions designed to increase turnout appeal to democratic sentiments but are highly debated as they entail two potentially countervailing effects. While generating more pieces of information, they may decrease the average voter's information quality. We examine two commonly discussed institutions inducing participation: abstention penalties (used in 32 countries around the world) and lotteries providing a prize to one randomly chosen participant (as proposed on the 2006 Arizona ballot). We analyze a benchmark rational choice model in which voters vary in their information quality and participation is costly. We illustrate that both institutions can improve collective outcomes, though lotteries are a more effective instrument asymptotically. In an array of lab experiments we empirically assess institutional performance. We find strong evidence for selective participation: lab voters participate more when better informed or when institutionally induced. However, because subjects vote more often than the equilibrium predictions, these institutions entail less welfare benefits than theory prescribes. Lotteries do fare better than fines, suggesting that they may be a useful alternative to commonly used compulsory voting schemes.
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