The ‘Paradox of Voting’ from the perspective of rational communication

31 May 2024
Room F1

The ‘Paradox of Voting’ from the perspective of rational communication

Given the central role of voting in popular elections to the practice of democracy, it is crucial to understand the motivations behind voters’ electoral choices. At the heart of this curiosity lies the question of why many people choose to vote at all, given that doing so incurs inherent costs and the likelihood of a particular vote being decisive is often negligible (Brennan and Lomasky, 1993). This puzzle is known as the “paradox of voting” (Downs, 1957).

Canonical responses to this problem suggest either that voters must be acting irrationally when deciding to vote, or that their motivations are unrelated to impacting the electoral outcome. One such theory is the “expressive” theory of voting, which posits that voting is akin to cheering for one’s favorite football team.

In my talk, I propose a novel (partial) solution to this puzzle based on foundational insights from the theory of rational communication. My approach is summarized as follows: Voting can be seen as a linguistic exchange, with the ballot as a question and the act of voting as a reply. I consider the voter as assuming that state authorities have a rational reason for posing the question (which they typically do). This implies that the potential vote must be relevant to the authorities’ decision to ask the question in the first place. The view can be appropriately laid out in any of the dominant approaches to rational communication such as Gricean pragmatics (Grice, 1989), Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson, 1986), or speech act theory (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969).



Austin, J. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford University Press.

Brennan, G. and Lomasky, L. (1993). Democracy and Decision: The Pure Theory of Electoral Preference. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Downs, A. (1957). An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper and Row.

Grice, H. P. (1989). Studies in the way of words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Searle, J. (1969). Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.