Is it Okay to Abstain from Voting?

Is abstaining from voting simply giving up? Although people may believe that abstaining from voting is wasting a chance to tell politicians what you think, BYU economist Dr. Joseph McMurray found the opposite to be true. In a recent study, he found that people can express themselves with parity through both voting and abstaining.


People use votes not as a tool for change, but as a “microphone for broadcasting their opinions,” said Dr. McMurray. For example, in last year’s presidential election, third party candidate Evan McMullin won 21.5% of Utah’s vote, according to the state’s Office of the Lieutenant Governor. Despite McMullin not winning the election, he served as an outlet for people to voice their disapproval of the major party candidates.

Even though votes for McMullin did not change the election results, Dr. McMurray illustrated their effect: “The biggest takeaway might be to push back on the assertion that votes have no impact when they fail to change the identity of the election winner: if office holders look at vote totals (which they clearly do) and adjust accordingly (which they plausibly might), every vote will have an impact.” 


But what about abstention? How do people express themselves by not voting? According to Dr. McMurray, there are two reasons a person abstains:

  • People with hunches feel like they don’t have enough information to accurately vote.
  • People believe that the correct thing to do is stay in the political middle; their abstention communicates that they don’t like/support either character.

Abstention sends a different message than voting does. Dr. McMurray provided the following graph to show that the likelihood of a person voting depends on their confidence level.

voting as communicating

The x axis represents a person’s opinion about candidates while the y axis is their knowledge about them; Negative one on either axis represents an extremely liberal perspective, 0 represents political neutrality, and positive one represents extreme conservatism. The more a person knows about a candidate, and the more liberal they are, the more likely they would be to vote for extremely liberal candidate A, but if that person had a low opinion of candidate A, they might vote for candidate B in the hopes that such a vote will influence candidate A to modify their stance. By the same token, the more a person knows about a conservative candidate, and the more conservative they are, the more likely they would be to vote for candidate D, but if they had a low opinion of that candidate, they might vote for candidate C in hopes of influencing candidate D. But, when a person abstains, they may be saying that they think the correct political stance is somewhere between the two opposites, and that, even though they might have strong beliefs, they may still abstain. Dr. McMurray shows with this graph that abstention can be utilized to communicate political beliefs.

Other Forms of Involvement

The study also showed that there are other ways for people to be involved besides voting and abstention.  These “microphones,” as he referred to them, can include trying to persuade others to vote certain ways, writing letters, endorsing candidates, donating money, attending political rallies, and working campaigns. They are more likely to be utilized by those with extreme political ideologies on either side of the liberal/conservative spectrum, as this graph shows:

voting graph


Regarding the hoped-for outcomes of his study, Dr. McMurray says: “I  hope that [it] will convince them to also consider which electoral systems foster the most useful communication from voters to office holders.” He also hopes that looking at voter communication will provide a window into voter and candidate motivations, which in general are difficult to know, but which are hugely important for productive political analyses.

However, understanding voting is more complicated than those results would suggest. Dr. McMurray understands this and is exploring it in future papers by studying how “logical connections between issues may explain why dozens of multi-faceted issues [are] so frequently reduce[d] simply to a left-versus-right contest” and “political polarization.”

What do you think has a bigger impact: voting or abstention?

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