American Political Science Review


The Paradox of Voter Participation? A Laboratory Study

a1 Washington University
a2 California Institute of Technology


It is widely believed that rational choice theory is grossly inconsistent with empirical observations about voter turnout. We report the results of an experiment designed to test the voter turnout predictions of the rational choice Palfrey–Rosenthal model of participation with asymmetric information. We find that the three main comparative statics predictions are observed in the data: the size effect, whereby turnout goes down in larger electorates; the competition effect, whereby turnout is higher in elections that are expected to be close; and the underdog effect, whereby voters supporting the less popular alternative have higher turnout rates. We also compare the quantitative magnitudes of turnout to the predictions of Nash equilibrium. We find that there is undervoting for small electorates and overvoting for large electorates, relative to Nash equilibrium. These deviations from Nash equilibrium are consistent with the logit version of Quantal Response Equilibrium, which provides a good fit to the data, and can also account for significant voter turnout in very large elections.

c1 David K. Levine is Professor, Washington University, St. Louis, MO 63130.
c2 Thomas R. Palfrey is Professor, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125.