A popular saying (often misattributed to Alexis de Tocqueville) states that a democracy can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. If this is always the case then we should expect the poor to vote themselves even more welfare payments. However, as Dwight R. Lee explains, the desire for transfers that others will pay for has almost no effect on people’s voting behavior:
This argument that a significant financial gain from transfers does not motivate poor people to vote is supported by voter behavior. Evidence is clear that low-income people are less likely to vote than high-income people. Even in the 2008 presidential election when Obama was credited with attracting a high percentage of low-income people to the polls with promises to “spread the wealth around”, the percentage of low-income citizens who voted was far lower than the percentage of high-income citizens who voted.4 If low-income people knew that only those who voted would qualify for government transfers, their individual votes would become far more decisive and their voting participation would increase dramatically.5 But since low-income with few assets are eligible for transfers that are enacted into law whether they vote or not, their individual votes are not decisive and many who do vote will vote against the transfers for reasons I now explain.6
If financial advantages are not what motivate people to go to the polls, or to vote in favor of those advantages when they do go, why do so many people vote? The most obvious answer is that people vote to express their support for candidates and policies that they believe benefit the general public.