Texting Our Way to the Polls, Three Friends at a Time


“What three friends would you like to hold accountable on Election Day?”

It’s three weeks until Election Day, and you are an active voter speaking to a civically engaged behavioral scientist. You provide the first name of three friends – Sam, Alex, and Jamie – and provide your cell phone number. The behavioral scientist thanks you, and says, “You’ll hear from me right before Election Day”. By doing this, you have just participated in one of the first attempts to use behavioral science to motivate voter turnout.

This new “Get Out The Vote” (GOTV) tactic utilizes three behavioral science strategies to increase voter turnout, and evidence suggests that they significantly increase polling numbers. Political campaigners however are struggling to catch on. Through text reminders, implementation intentions, and social influence, campaigners can build on behavioral science research and shape a new generation of civic engagement. In this article, I will explain how.

Strategy 1: Text Reminders

Behavioral scientists are discovering the power of texting in multiple domains, including civic engagement, and have found that it may be more effective than traditional communication methods.  Phone-banks and mail reminders are impersonal, easy to ignore, and costly: The least expensive professional and personalized phone bank produces a vote at $19. [3] Face-to-face communication meanwhile, such as canvassing, is more effective, but is timely and limited in scope. In a 2006 study, these traditional methods reached about 30% of a targeted population. Texts, by contrast, had an estimated contact rate of 80% of the target population, and was much cheaper, costing at most $0.10 per recipient. [1] Finally, if you attempt to call an individual, or knock on a door at an inconvenient time, your message is never received. This hindrance is not experienced with texting strategies.

Behavioral scientists therefore argue that texting is the solution. Recipients have little motivation to ignore the text, due to its relatively small amount of spam messaging compared with calls and email, and the text recipient has the flexibility to read and respond to the message on their own schedule. In addition, young voters are increasingly reliant on handheld technology such as mobile phones and tablets, so the text reminder is likely to command their attention. Researchers found that text message reminders increased voter turnout rates by 4.1 percentage points over the control group, significantly more than the other tested strategies. [1]

Strategy 2: Implementation Intentions

 Texting strategies that appeal to accessibility and convenience are not the only way to improve voter turnout. Other areas of research focus on how structure and organization in the run up to election day also weigh heavily on an individual’s decision to go out and vote. Findings suggest that individuals are most likely to vote if they plan for Election Day. By considering the structure of their day, what time works best for voting, and where they need to go to cast their vote, a citizen will be prepared and more likely to vote when the day arrives.

In one study, the participants in the implementation intention condition reported what time they would vote, where they were coming from, and what they would be doing before voting. Participants that shared these concrete implementation intentions were 0.9 percentage points more likely to vote than the control: a statistically significant result. [4] Researchers also analyzed households by number of eligible voters. They found the implementation intention condition to increase voter turnout in one-eligible-voter households by a statistically significant 2 percent over the control, and found none of the other conditions increased voter turnout significantly in these households. [4] Participants that determined their voting implementation intentions and shared them with the researchers were more likely to vote.

Strategy 3: Social Influence

In addition to text reminders and implementation intentions, strategies aiming to boost voter turn-out can build on the fact that people are highly influenced by their peers. Societal expectations that promote or hinder a behavior has social influence. People often strive to behave in a way that warrants acceptance in society. This societal influence is relevant because voting is a prosocial behavior: voters are well-regarded because they are active and engaged members of society. Researchers found that when participants believe others in their community will know whether they participate in the election, participants are significantly more likely to vote.

In one study, participants in the social influence condition received a list of names of people in their neighborhood, including themselves, indicating who voted in the previous election. The message informed participants that a similar list will be released to the neighborhood following the upcoming election. 37.8 percent of participants in this condition voted. This turnout is substantially higher than a “civic duty” condition, where households read, “Remember your rights and responsibilities as a citizen. Remember to vote.” 31.5 percent of voters in this civic duty condition voted. In the control group, where participants did not receive a message, 29.7 percent of participants voted. [2] The results suggest that participants were highly motivated to vote due to the social influence of their neighbors.

How to Apply these Voting Strategies

Considering the research backing up these strategies, how could they be applied?  Imagine that tomorrow is Election Day, and you receive the following text: “This is your reminder to vote on Tuesday, June 13. Do you know where your polling station is, and do you have a plan to get to the polls?” [Strategy 1: Text Reminder]. You think for a moment, and respond, “Yes, I plan to vote at the library at 4 pm.” [Strategy 2: Implementation Intentions] Another text arrives: “Great, let’s make sure your friends Sam, Alex, and Jamie get to the polls too…” You committed to holding these friends accountable weeks ago, now you remember to follow through on your commitment. You also receive a sample text that you can copy and paste to your peers, and it looks like: “Hey Alex! Tuesday is Election Day. Do you know where and when you’re voting? I’m voting at 4 pm, and I hope to see you there.” [Strategy 3: Social Influence] Once you complete this step, all three strategies are activated for you and three of your peers. The effects can spread rapidly, and increase voter turnout without expending time or resources.

The behavioral scientists that employed this strategy had encouraging results during the Virginia Gubernatorial primary election in June, where 67 percent of the participants responded to the texts, and over half of the responders affirmed contacting their three friends or family members about the election. The majority of participants attended to the reminder and followed-through on their commitment. Given the evidence on each method for encouraging voter turnout, voter turnout in these social networks increased by multiples of 3. Participants received a text about their intentions to vote and to hold their friends accountable, developed and shared a plan for voting with the behavioral scientist, and then they alerted three friends, asking for their voting plans. By engaging with their friends, the influence of societal expectations come to light. All parties benefitted from the three strategies: Text reminders, implementation intentions, and social influence. According to the research, this increased voting numbers in the primary.

Behavioral science findings are only as powerful as their application. The behavioral scientists behind this strategy possessed two pivotal yet simple characteristics: the desire to promote civic engagement in young people, and an interest in behavioral science research. Anyone who shares these qualities can participate and apply evidence-based findings about human behavior to motivate voter action. Through text message reminders, setting implementation intentions, and activating social influence, a few engaged citizens reached dozens of potential voters. The next step is scaling up the strategy, so we can text our way to the polls, three friends at a time.

[1] Dale, A., & Strauss, A. (2009). Don’t Forget to Vote: Text Message Reminders as a Mobilization Tool.  American Journal of Political Science, 53(4), 787-804. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20647951
[2] Gerber, A., Green, D., & Larimer, C. (2008). Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment. American Political Science Review, 102(1), 33-48. DOI:10.1017/S000305540808009X
[3] Gerber, A., & Green, D. (2000). The Effects of Canvassing, Telephone Calls, and Direct Mail on Voter Turnout: A Field Experiment. The American Political Science Review, 94(3), 653-663. DOI: 10.2307/2585837
[4] Nickerson, D., & Rogers, T. (2010). Do You Have a Voting Plan? : Implementation Intentions, Voter  Turnout, and Organic Plan Making. Psychological Science, 21(2), 194-199. DOI: 10.1177/0956797609359326

Ilana Brody
About Ilana Brody:

Ilana Brody has a BA in Psychology and Economics from the University of Virginia. In school, she researched social behavior, and her thesis studied barriers to long-term goal pursuit. Ilana hopes to apply behavioral science findings to public policy to address social problems. She currently works for a social and economic policy think tank in Washington, D.C.