It's a form of social payment -- and an advertisement
They're everywhere on election day: "I Voted" stickers. I've seen them on jackets and shirts and faces. If almost everybody's got one, it feels pointless to put one on your own sleeve.
But actually, the fact that everybody's got one is the point.
Why do people bother voting?
At a pure cost-benefit level, it's hard to justify taking hours out of your day to cast a single vote when the margin of victory can be counted in the tens of thousands. But today, millions of Americans will do just that. They will break out of this narrow boundary of economic rationalization, stand around in line for hours, and make democracy happen.
And yet, we vote. We vote because we think it's important. We vote because we care about our country and our rights. We vote because it makes us feel good. It has nothing to do with economics.
But that obvious answer hasn't dissuaded economists from wondering why millions of people choose to take so much time to do something with little benefit to them, personally. In one influential paper, economist Patricia Funk studied voting in Switzerland, where the government had created a vote-by-mail system to raise the country's sliding participation.
The Swiss government thought about falling turnout like an economist. If the "time-cost" of voting was discouraging people from visiting the polls, a simple vote-by-mail system should make voting feel more like a "bargain." Good economic thinking! But the plan flopped. Turnout declined in the areas where vote-by-mail was introduced compared to the rest of the country.
The Swiss government failed to understand why people vote, Funk concluded. It's social pressure, not economics, that motivates the marginal, or on-the-fence, voter. By creating the option to vote by mail, Switzerland got it backwards. They decreased the voting costs, but also removed the social pressure.
Get-Out-the-Vote campaigns are dogged about building social motivations for disinclined voters. Although low turnout should theoretically raise the value of each individual vote, research has shown that emphasizing high turnout is more likely to motivate marginal voters. Why? People care about the value of our vote. But, perhaps even more, we value being a part of a motivated group.
In small Swiss towns, being seen at your voting location might be the perfect social motivator. But in larger cities, it's probable that you won't know the strangers in line with you at the polls. The primary social pressure to vote has to come from somewhere besides being spied by your best friends as you're waiting in line. Where might it be?
People like being seen voting, as Funk concluded, but we also like being seen having voted. Theoretically something signalling to our community that we've already voted should create the same feelings of social cohesion, civic duty, and belonging. And that's where the "I Voted" sticker comes in.
The "I Voted" sticker is a signal and an advertisement. It binds people together in solidarity and reminds others to join the group. Tens of millions of people will vote in every presidential election whether there are free stickers or free cookies. But beyond these intrinsically interested (and, possibly, more informed) voters are countless more citizens who need motivation to show up at the ballot box.
The "I Voted" sticker isn't worth squat on the market. Its value -- and its motivation -- is purely social. And to the extent that it might actually get some marginal Americans to the polls, it's also priceless.