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Want to get out the vote? Here are tips to nudge people to the polls tomorrow.

Source: FutUndBeidl/flickr

With the midterm elections tomorrow, getting voters to the polls is foremost on the minds of politicians and civic organizations across the country. According to the United States Election Project, only about 40% of registered voters have participated in midterm elections over the past 40 years, with the 2014 midterms seeing the lowest numbers since World War II. While turnout this November is anticipated to reach its highest point since the 1960s, only about 50% of those eligible are expected to vote. Boosting voter turnout is a challenge that campaigns spend many millions trying to address, yet behavioral scientists have tested a number of low-cost ways to “nudge” people to vote by leveraging how the human mind works. Despite some of these interventions having relatively small effects, at scale they have the power to efficiently and inexpensively get hundreds of thousands more people into a voting booth.

  • A simple planning nudge can prevent people from failing to follow through on their voting intentions. During the weekend before the 2008 presidential primary between then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, robocalls were placed to over 250,000 registered Democrats with a history of not voting in primaries. Some of these robocalls asked people to form a specific plan for when they would vote and where they would be coming from (an “implementation intention”). Compared to those who were simply reminded to vote by robocall, voter turnout increased by more than 2 points overall, and by more than 9 points among people living alone. The researchers hypothesized that adults living together organically discuss voting plans, whereas people living alone often do not.
  • Making voting a part of someone’s identity can motivate that person to head to the polls. Researchers surveyed registered voters online the night before or morning of an election. The survey asked 10 questions about either “voting” or about “being a voter.” In both the 2008 presidential election in California and the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial election, asking people about being a voter led to turnout rates at least 10 points higher than asking about voting.
  • Knowing that your closest friends have voted can convince you to do the same. Researchers partnered with Facebook during the 2010 midterms to examine how social networks influence voting. On the day of the election, over 60 million Facebook users were shown pictures of 6 random ‘friends’ who clicked an ‘I Voted’ button on their account. Turnout among these users was 0.4 points higher than among users who were only encouraged to vote. This effect was entirely due to seeing that close friends (i.e., those you actually interact with on Facebook) had voted, not all of your other Facebook connections.

How can you leverage these lessons to help get out the vote? If you’re nudging people to vote, ask them planning questions like what time they will vote, what they will do before and after voting, and how they will get to the polls. Talk to them about how important is to be a voter, as opposed to just voting, and get them to think about whom else in their social circle will vote (including yourself!). In an era when elections are often decided by a thousand votes or fewer, a good nudge could be enough to swing the results.


Bond, R. M., Fariss, C. J., Jones, J. J., Kramer, A. D. I., Marlow, C., Settle, J. E., & Fowler, J. H. (2012). A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization. Nature, 489, 295-298.

Bryan, C. J., Walton, G. M., Rogers, T., & Dweck, C. S. (2011). Motivating voter turnout by invoking the self. PNAS, 108(31), 12653-12656.

Nickerson, D. W., & Rogers, T. (2010). Do you have a voting plan? Implementation intentions, voter turnout, and organic plan making. Psychological Science, 21(2), 194-199.

More from Ross E O'Hara, Ph.D.
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