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Texas Politics - Voting, Campaigns and Elections
 
 
 
A selection of interest group voter guides A selection of interest group voter guides
State voter residency requirements State voter residency requirements
Reasons for not voting Reasons for not voting
absentee voting
early voting
information costs
transaction costs
5.2    Information and Transaction Costs

As mentioned previously, there are two general types of costs associated with voting: information costs and transaction costs. According to the microeconomic approach to understanding voting behavior, all specific barriers to voting (legal, structural, or other) can be understood in these terms.

Information costs are the costs of acquiring and processing information - in this case, political information necessary for or useful in voting and other forms of political participation. What constitutes political information or voting information? Political information can range from the simplest facts about voting procedures to arcane knowledge about politics, policy, and candidates.

For example, the simplest and most fundamental pieces of knowledge required in voting include knowing how and when to register to vote, where your local polling place is located, and the dates of elections. You could not cast a vote without this information: a fact that illustrates how voter registration imposes a cost on citizens.

Citizens need to know that they must register and how to do so, and then they need to do it in order to vote. This may sound so basic as to exaggerate the impact of voter registration and voting location information. However, voter registration and the state-level rules that regulate the process have long been recognized as a barrier to voting by the courts as well as by advocates seeking to make it easier to vote. [1]

Voter registration requirements used to be much more stringent than they are now - and consequently represented a greater obstacle to voting. Until the 1970s Texas required voters to register every year by January 31. If a potential voter forgot to register by this date, he or she could not vote when election day rolled around. Current law in Texas requires voters to register no less than thirty days before the election in which one wishes to vote. Once registered, voters remain registered as long as they remain qualified. A voter who changes residence, however, is required to re-register at the new address. Current voter registration requirements in Texas are similar to those in many other states, although a few states have even less stringent requirements.

Criticism that voter registration depresses turnout led to passage of a national "motor-voter registration" law in 1993 requiring states to provide uniform registration services through drivers' license agencies, through public assistance and disability agencies, and through mail-in registration.

Skeptics of the argument that registration posed a significant barrier to voting point out that the passage of "motor voter" did not lead to dramatic increases in voter turnout as a result of the reduction in the costs associated with registration. But debate continues.

Other critics point to the compromises necessary to get the bill through Congress that watered down the bill's effectiveness. Many proponents of the legislation initially advocated automatic voter registration when a citizen received a driver's license or state ID card. The final bill only required making registration forms available at licensing agencies, among other, less automatic options.

In addition to basic information on registration and voting procedures, citizens need meaningful information on the issues of the day and on the competing candidates. This information is much more difficult to acquire and process. Furthermore, the associated costs are higher in Texas than in many other states because so many executive and judicial branch offices are elective. Each office on the ballot adds one more race requiring additional information - if voters are to make informed decisions.

To win voters to their causes, various interest and community groups assemble voter guides summarizing issues as well as background on political candidates. Many groups - from police associations to environmental advocates to abortion opponents - endorse candidates as a way of saying, "We give our seal of approval to this candidate." Some interest groups even evaluate candidates according to a grading system. Such aids are intended to drive down the cost of information and, in some cases, to spur advocates to become more interested and more likely to vote. But again, with so many candidates on the ballot in a typical Texas election, sometimes the voter guides, scorecards, report cards, and fliers only add to the noise and confusion that swamp voters.

Despite the efforts of various groups and organizations to reduce the cost of electoral information, the very length of the campaign season also increases costs for voters. In Texas, primaries for the major parties are held in March, more than seven months before the general election. The long campaign season is usually filled with seemingly interminable television advertising but only superficial discussion of the issues. The net effect is to dull the senses of the electorate, while providing only negligible insight into the issues and candidates.

In addition to a burden of information costs, the economic analogy also implies that voters face transaction costs - the costs of making a transaction in the marketplace. Even simple economic transactions involve additional costs that may not be obvious. A trip to the convenience store to buy a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread involves not just the cost of the item you need to buy, but time, possibly gasoline, and a share of the annual insurance cost for your car.

For a single trip to the grocery store, such costs are negligible. But they still exist, and we often factor them into our decision making for small transactions consciously or not. For other transactions the costs are both more numerous and higher. Buying a car, for example, involves substantial sales taxes, title and registration fees, insurance, and inspection fees (in addition to time and travel associated with looking at possible vehicles to purchase).

Voting also can impose numerous and substantial transaction costs. As with all transactions, voters must spend time that could be used for other productive or leisure activities. In the United States the time many Americans spend voting is longer than it could be, because we rely primarily on single-day, mid-week elections.

Traditionally, most working people vote as soon as the polls open in the morning or after work; such voting patterns make the polling locations quite busy at these hours, and thereby raise the cost of the voting "transaction." In Texas, these transaction costs (e.g., time spent waiting in line, the frustration of contending with crowds) are exacerbated by the fact that polls close at 7:00 p.m. There is little time after the end of the work day to vote. A Texas employee must be allowed time to vote - time off paid for by his or her employer - unless the employee has two consecutive, non-working hours during polling hours. The law has been understood as giving the employer the right to specify the hours that an employee may take to vote. Nevertheless, employers must pay the normal employee wages for the time taken.

2004 election: Early voting at UT
2004 election: Early voting at UT

Complaints about short polling hours and mid-week elections finally resulted in the relaxation of voting laws. Since 1987, Texas has offered two types of early voting: in person and by mail (this second type is sometimes referred to as absentee voting). Voting early in person does not require any special circumstances, additional paperwork, or procedures. Voters simply choose an early voting location convenient to them. These are located in busy public places like malls, supermarkets, colleges, and universities.

Early voting begins seventeen days before and ends four days before election day in most elections. To vote early by mail, you must be either out of the county during the early voting period and on Election Day - or age 65 or older, sick, disabled, or confined to jail. Simply call the elections administrator in charge of the particular election and request that an application for a ballot by mail be sent to you. Since the expansion of early voting, increasing numbers of Texans have taken advantage of this lower cost voting option. In 2008 - with an historic national presidential race underway and several hotly contested legislative races - many Texas counties experienced record levels of early voting. The 15 largest counties in the state had over 40% of voters cast their ballots early.

Early voting may reduce the transaction costs associated with waiting in line on election day or having to take time off work. Nevertheless, voting also involves out-of-pocket expenses for things like transportation (e.g., gasoline, bus fare, parking), and even hiring a baby-sitter.

Lastly, those who merely register to vote bear a less obvious cost. In many jurisdictions in the U.S., lists for jury duty are taken directly from voter registration rolls. Hence, if you register to vote you may be summoned for jury duty. In Texas, this "cost" of participating in elections is probably not much of a barrier to voting. Few people realize the connection between voter registration and jury service. More importantly, names of potential jurors in Texas are drawn from a combined list that includes current registered voters as well as all licensed Texas drivers and citizens holding Department of Public Safety identification cards.

With this chapter's Thinking Comparatively feature which examines the frequency of reasons people in Texas and nationwide give for not voting, you can assess what kinds of costs non-voters seem to be avoiding.

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1 Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Why Americans Don't Vote. Piven and Cloward provide an historical analysis of the advent and evolution of voter registration requirements in the United States, and argue that registration suppresses

Texas Politics:
© 2009, Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services
University of Texas at Austin
3rd Edition - Revision 115
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