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The Paradox of Voter Participation: A Laboratory Study

David K. Levine and Thomas R. Palfrey

September 13, 2005

Revised: September 13, 2005

Abstract: 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 under-voting for small electorates and overvoting for large electorates, relative to Nash equilibrium. These deviations from Nash equilibrium are consistent with the logit equilibrium, which provides a good fit to the data.