Why We Vote Matters: The Impact of Altruistic Voting on Election Outcomes

This is a guest post by DLABSS Researcher Daniel Mahler. This research is part of a larger Danish research project, the findings of which are very much in line with the results from the US sample discussed below. The findings may apply to other democracies as well.

Extensive research in political science has documented that some voters cast their ballots based on selfish concerns, while others vote for the candidate they think is best for society as a whole.  But does this dichotomy matter for the outcome of elections? And what would happen if some people were to change their moral motivation for voting? Seeking answers to these questions, 400 participants at the Harvard Digital Lab were asked the following three questions:

1.     Who would you vote for if the presidential election were held tomorrow?

2.     Who would you vote for if you were to consider only what is best for yourself?

3.     Who would you vote for if you were to consider what is best for society as a whole?

The participants were also asked to place the 2016 presidential candidates on a political scale from 1 (extremely liberal) to 7 (extremely conservative). The average placements of a selection of the candidates are shown below.

With these placements, it is possible to compare where on this line, on average, individuals place their actual, selfish, and altruistic (i.e. societal) votes. That is, we can see what would happen if people changed why they vote. 

As shown in the figure above, the answer seems to be that if more people were to vote selfishly, right-wing candidates would receive more votes. Conversely, if more people voted altruistically, the outcome would be more left-winged.

We can go one step further and compare the variation or standard deviation in the votes. A large standard deviation signifies less political agreement and greater popularity of candidates on the far ends of the political spectrum. This is illustrated below.

Evidently, if more people voted selfishly, then candidates on the extreme ends of the political spectrum would receive more votes, whereas there would be slightly more political agreement if more people voted altruistically.

So what? Does it matter whether people vote selfishly or altruistically? These results suggest it does indeed matter whether people vote for what they think is best for themselves or society as a whole. If candidates knew this, they might be able to increase their chances of winning elections by influencing the reasons why voters vote.