Abstention: The Unexpected Power of Withholding Your Vote

32 Pages Posted: 17 Dec 2010

See all articles by Grant M. Hayden

Grant M. Hayden

Southern Methodist University - Dedman School of Law


This Article examines the effect of abstentions on the outcome of votes. Scholars (and voters) operate under two basic assumptions about the nature of abstention. First, they assume that an abstention affects all alternatives in equal measure. Second, and relatedly, people assume that a voter’s preferred alternative will be less likely to win if that voter abstains (and, of course, more likely to win if she votes). Removing the potential full support of a vote and replacing it with the fifty-fifty proposition of an abstention should hurt the chances of a voter’s preferred alternative. These two assumptions guide the thinking on abstentions at all levels of democratic decision-making, and have been incorporated into everything from voting procedures themselves to conflict of interest rules. The thesis of this Article is that these fundamental assumptions about abstention are often false. Initially, there are many potential situations, which fall under a phenomenon known as the “No-Show Paradox,” where voters help their favored alternative by withholding their vote. More importantly, there are many situations in which abstention does not express something like fifty-fifty indifference with respect to outcome. Instead, under many voting procedures in a wide range of democratic institutions, abstention places a thumb on the scale for (or against) one of the alternatives. Together, these findings challenge our basic assumptions about abstention and undercut the justification for many of the voting procedures in our most significant democratic institutions, from Congress to courts and corporations to unions.

Keywords: abstention, voting, voting procedures, voting methods, voting power, voting paradox, legislatures

JEL Classification: D70, D71, D72

Suggested Citation

Hayden, Grant M., Abstention: The Unexpected Power of Withholding Your Vote. Connecticut Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 2, 2010, Hofstra Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-46, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1725933

Grant M. Hayden (Contact Author)

Southern Methodist University - Dedman School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 750116
Dallas, TX 75275
United States

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