Low voter turnout is a noteworthy challenge in United States politics. In recent years, the United States has ranked nearly the lowest in voter turnout among developed nations.1 The Decision Lab’s Sanketh Andhavarapu previously explored some of the cognitive biases that may influence voting behavior and argued that traditional “get out the vote” (GOTV) campaigns may fail to mitigate their negative outcomes.
GOTV campaigns are all about telling voters that their voices matter. But polling suggests2,3 voters believe private money and big interests have more power over election outcomes than ordinary citizens do.
In an effort to address these concerns, in 2017, Seattle became the first U.S. city to utilize a campaign finance system called Democracy Vouchers, in which all residents are issued four $25 vouchers to donate to political candidates in local races. In order to be eligible to receive voucher donations, candidates needed to abide by certain campaign criteria, including limiting large campaign contributions and participating in public debates.4
Early results from the program were promising: Voter turnout in Seattle’s first two election cycles where Democracy Vouchers were used was 10% higher than in the two election cycles prior to the launch of the program.5 Behavioral science can help explain why this campaign finance reform gets more people to the polls, and provide valuable insights about how else we can address low voter turnout.
Behavioral Science, Democratized
We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices.
At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.
Vouchers give voters a sense of control
Deciding whether “your vote matters” requires attempting to determine whether performing the action of voting has the potential to make a meaningful impact on the political process. Social Cognitive Theory founder Alfred Bandura called this perceived political efficacy.
Unsurprisingly, Bandura found that increasing a person’s optimistic beliefs about their level of control helps motivate them to take action and overcome barriers.6 Preliminary data suggests that Democracy Vouchers help do just that. In a survey about the program commissioned by the Seattle Government, the majority of respondents agreed with the following statements:
- “Democracy Vouchers make candidates more accountable to Seattle residents” (52%)
- “Democracy Vouchers make candidates less reliant on private campaign contributions” (69%)7
These statements may be signs of increased perceived political efficacy, demonstrating that Democracy Vouchers help voters feel more confident about their ability to compete with other political and financial influences.
Vouchers make voters feel committed
70% of respondents also agreed with another statement, “Democracy Vouchers encourage Seattle residents to engage with campaigns for local office.”8 Notice that it says “engage with” campaigns, not just “vote in elections.” After all, Seattle’s Democracy Vouchers program is primarily a means for providing residents the opportunity to donate to candidates running for office.
This opportunity to participate in the political process as a donor prior to election day may partially explain why vouchers increase voter turnout, via a behavioral principle called Commitment Bias. Also known as the “escalation of commitment,” Commitment Bias describes our tendency to align our decisions with our past behavior. Once we make an initial commitment to something, we become more willing to take additional steps in the same direction, or escalate our level of commitment.
Perhaps by providing all residents with vouchers upfront, Seattle is capitalizing on this innate desire for consistency in our behavior. When citizens are given an initial opportunity to engage in the political process, it creates a sense of commitment, inspiring them to show up to the polls on voting day too. This theory is in line with other research showing that in general, people who donate to political campaigns are more likely to be voters.9
Democracy Vouchers: Coming to a city near you
It's important to note that Democracy Vouchers and other methods of campaign finance reform also impact the type of candidates who can afford to run for office. This could also help explain increased voter turnout, as the presence of candidates with underrepresented identities and political ideologies may encourage voters to make their voices heard at the polls.
The Democracy Voucher program is unique in that it is the only type of campaign finance reform that provides all residents with the opportunity to become political donors. This characteristic may be important to organizations and policymakers interested in increasing voter participation.
Seattle’s program has inspired other Democracy Voucher campaigns to emerge in several states, including an initiative that will appear on the ballot in Oakland this November.10
- Barber, M., Gordon, D., Hill, R., & Price, J. (2017). Status Quo Bias in Ballot Wording. In Journal of Experimental Political Science (Vol. 4, Issue 2, pp. 151–160). https://doi.org/10.1017/xps.2017.9
- Confessore, N., & Thee-Brenan, M. (2015, June 2). Poll Shows Americans Favor Overhaul of Campaign Financing. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/03/us/politics/poll shows-americans-favor-overhaul-of-campaign-financing.html
- 4. Pew Research Center. (2018, April 26) The Public, the Political System and American Democracy. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/wp content/uploads/sites/4/2018/04/4-26-2018-Democracy-release-1.pdf
- Seattle Washington Municipal Code. Title 2 – Elections - Chapter 2.04 – Election Campaign Contributions. Accessed via https://library.municode.com/wa/seattle/codes/municipal_code?nodeId=TIT2EL_CH2.04ELCACO_SUBCHAPTER_VIIIHOELSE_2.04.620DEVOIS
- Berk Consulting (2020). Seattle Democracy Voucher Program. 2019 Election Cycle Evaluation. Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. https://www.seattle.gov/documents/Departments/EthicsElections/DemocracyVoucher/Biennial%20Reports/Final%20DVP%20Evaluation%20Report%20July23_2020.pdf
- Bandura, A. (1989). Human agency in social cognitive theory. The American Psychologist. 44 (9): 1175–1184
- See 5
- See 6
- Hughes, A. (2017, May 17). 5 Facts about U.S. Political Donations. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/17/5-facts-about-u-s-political-donations/
- Rhoades, C. (2022, July 12). Oakland wants to give voters money to make campaign contributions. Oakland North. https://oaklandnorth.net/2022/07/12/oakland-campaign-vouchers-democracy-dollars/
About the Author
Kaya Foster has over a decade of experience designing and implementing engagement programs and campaigns for nonprofits, community groups, and institutions of higher education. She is interested in how behavioral science can empower everyday people to make a difference, and guide organizations shaping public policy. Kaya is a graduate of the Sustainability & Behavior Change program at UCSD, a robust professional certification grounded in "Community Based Social Marketing", an internationally utilized approach to "selling" altruistic behavior adoption & encouraging community engagement. She also holds a B.A. from UCLA.