With all the excitement surrounding the 2016 election, it might be surprising to learn that only 55.4% of eligible citizens, a little over half of the population, turned out to vote. Even the 2008 election, which had the highest turnout in recent history, only had a voter turnout of 63.7%. This kind of voter turnout puts America pretty low on the list of developed countries, which is not something to be proud of, but it also means that voter mobilization efforts have the potential to yield massive results. For example, Romney only lost to Obama by five million votes. That’s a pretty small number compared to the 112 million still up for grabs.
The current methods
The existing get out the vote campaigns come in a few different varieties: direct mail, phone banks, door to door. The most insane and probably the least effective is that kind where Robert Downey Jr. and a laundry list of other celebrities command you to vote from the TV.
Even self-aware and committed campaigns in this frame likely don’t move the needle all that much, because they rely on old-fashioned techniques. Namely, a handful of righteous messages that include things like “it’s your responsibility to vote” or “your voice won’t be heard otherwise” or even “it’s a historic and/or really really close election”. While these are all really good reasons to vote, they all operate under the assumption of a behavioral theory called rational self-interest.
For decades, people assumed that if social norms about voting were heavily reinforced like they are in these ads, then people would just comply to satisfy their sense of civic duty. Unfortunately, when put to the test, these techniques came up way short.
Insights from behavioral science
In a landmark 2008 paper from Gerber, Green and Larimer, extensive studies show that rational self-interested behaviors generally fail to predict significant turnout. This goes for celebrities talking to you through the TV or online, as well as the phone banks, direct mail, or door-to-door canvassing.
The problem is that plenty of people tell you they’re going to vote, but don’t actually do so when push comes to shove. But behavioral research can offer some tricks to help.
Trick 1: Help voters make a plan. Studies show, for example, that if you ask people about their specific plan, this makes them significantly more likely to follow through and vote. Ask them where they are voting, how they are going to do so, and how they are going to get there. This could double or triple your effectiveness.
Trick 2: Say there is going to be a big turnout. Campaigners often tell people that every vote counts, implying that turnout will be relatively low. But the research shows that people are more likely to vote if they think there’s going to be a high turnout. In other words, if everyone else is doing it too, they are more likely to do it themselves.
Okay, but what if you really wanted to boost the voter turnout. Is there anything that would motivate people in a really significant way?
What if your neighbors knew whether you voted?
First, it’s important to note that in America, our voting record is public. That means anyone can see whether or not you voted. Now, who you voted for is private, only you know that. But if and when you voted in the past is public record. With this in mind, let’s go back to the Gerber, Green and Larimer paper. What they did is they conducted a large-scale field experiment where they mailed out letters to four different groups of people.
Group 1. The letters sent to group 1 were standard campaign letters which said to do your civic duty and vote. Basically like those ads on Facebook.
Group2. The letters sent to group 2 informed people that they would be confidentially studied by the researchers who were studying voter turnout.
Group 3. The third group were sent letters which made people aware of their own voting record. For example, Robert and his wife were sent their own voting records from which Robert could see that while his wife voted in both the 2008 and 2012 elections, he only voted in 2012.
Group 4. This is where it gets really interesting. The researchers took it one step further for group 4, and sent out people’s voting records, including the voting records of their neighbors so everyone could see who was voting and who wasn’t.
Results. The voter turnout of first group who got the standard mail increased by 1.8% points. Turnout in group 2 increased by 2.5%, group 3 by 4.9% and most dramatically, group 4 by 8.1%.