The Range of Reasons for Voting

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6322.htm)

People may have different reasons for voting for representatives, or choosing not to vote, as shown in the following list:

Party manifesto: Interest in policies, requiring the voter to be well-informed.

Party ideology: Having strong principles – a personal political philosophy – or following their parents.

Tactical voting: Choosing a candidate who is more popular than the one they really prefer, to prevent a third candidate from winning – because of their strong dislike of the latter.

Perceived need for a change: Discontented, not necessarily because of government performance.  This feeling may or may not depend upon an analysis of the alternatives being offered.

Ethnic identity: Believing that a representative from the same ethnic group would take the sort of decisions that the voter would approve of.  Fearful of losing influence to other groups.

Personality: Believing that the candidate has the right type of character to take good decisions; choosing someone with whom the voter feels comfortable.

Loyalty / inertia: Satisfied, apathetic or resigned – feeling that change might not be for the better.

This rather simplified list illustrates the variety of reasons for the way that people vote.  The first four in the list are based upon a wish to influence policy, but with varying degrees of interest in the detail.  The last three are more to do with a wish to delegate political decisions to the ‘right sort of people’ – but perceptions of a candidate’s personality can be changed by a moment’s awkwardness in public, especially if captured on camera, as described in a BBC article published in May 2016: Why do politicians have so many socially awkward moments?

The list illustrates how democracy does not guarantee that people take an active interest in how they are being governed and that democratic choice has an indeterminate link to policies – the politicians have no way of knowing what people’s reasons for voting might have been:

  • Research, published in the book Democracy for Realists, has shown that “voters – even those who are well informed and politically engaged – mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues”.
  • If voters are ignorant, the election results are even harder to interpret. Ronald Dworkin, on p.128 of his book Is Democracy Possible Here?, pointed out that elector ignorance in America was undermining the meaning of elections: “At the height of the cold war, a majority of Americans did not know whether Russia was a member of NATO.” He made several specific recommendations for additional education.
  • Manifestos may contain several policy measures, so no-one can tell which measures were supported by voters and which were not, as noted in the next sub-section (

The interval between elections is also a problem.  This can typically be up to five years, during which time unanticipated events can blow policies off course.  And, during an election campaign, people might well have forgotten what promises had been made in the previous campaign – so they might not hold politicians adequately to account.