Reasons for Voting

People may have different reasons for voting, so election results don’t accurately reflect a population’s policy preferences

Some common reasons are shown in the following list:

Party manifesto (platform): 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. and the last three are more to do with a wish to delegate political decisions to the ‘right sort of people’.

Perceptions of a candidate’s personality can be changed by a moment’s awkwardness in public, especially if captured on camera.  Elections can be swung by such trivia.  Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich was a notable example – which The Atlantic reported as The Defining Image of the British Election.

The above list illustrates how democracy does not guarantee that people take an active interest in how they are being governed.  Politicians have no way of knowing what people’s reasons for voting might have been.  Elections cannot therefore guide political decisions.

Research, published in the book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, found  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, in his book Is Democracy Possible Here?, described the extent of elector ignorance in America:

“At the height of the cold war, a majority of Americans did not know whether Russia was a member of NATO.” [p.128]

In this he was quoting Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin in their book Deliberation Day.  He went on to say:

“If the political consultants tell the politicians to treat us as ignorant, we will remain ignorant, and so long as we are ignorant, the consultants will tell the politicians to treat us that way.”

Later in the book (pp.148-150), he made several specific recommendations for additional education, to improve people’s ability to make meaningful choices when they vote.

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.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6322.htm.