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How to Get More People to Vote

Evidence-backed strategies for the next election.

mohamed_hassan / Pixabay
Source: mohamed_hassan / Pixabay

It can be very hard to change someone’s mind about political issues. So, when trying to win an election, it might be better to focus on making sure one’s own party actually votes. Voter turnout can decide elections, with some arguing that low voter turnout cost Hillary the 2016 election when voter turnout was especially low among Democrats, minorities, and young people.

So, how can we encourage more people to vote? Here are a few evidence-based tactics researchers have uncovered that show how we can most effectively mobilize voters:

Use a bit of peer pressure.

Many people are not aware that their voting history is public record. And researchers have used these public records to try to mobilize voters – sometimes in frightening ways. One study used these records, along with the threat of public shaming, to try to get people to vote.

Eighty thousand Michigan voters received letters before a 2006 primary that said, in all caps, “WHAT IF YOUR NEIGHBORS KNEW YOU VOTED?” The letters then reported the recipient’s voting history alongside the voting history of all their neighbors. Recipients were also told that every neighbor would receive an updated copy of everyone’s voting history after the upcoming election.

While alarming, this method led to an 8.1% increase in voter participation – one of the highest of any intervention used to increase voter turnout. However, this strategy received backlash, leading to more than 300 angry phone calls.

Follow-up studies suggest that less heavy-handed techniques, such as sending someone a letter showing just their own past voting history, thanking people for voting in previous elections, or simply telling people “we may call you after the election to ask about your voting experience” are effective techniques that don’t generate backlash but still subtly hold people accountable.

Because people like to think they are choosing something freely and don’t like to feel like they’re being coerced into doing something, these strategies may be more effective in the long-run than shaming voters. But, this hasn’t stopped politicians like Ted Cruz from sending people “voting violations” that give people grades based on their voting history and compare these to their neighbors’ grades.

Show people that everyone is doing it

You might think that people would be more likely to vote if they are worried that not enough people are voting. But, curiously, that is not the case. If people are told that the polls will be busy and lots of people plan to vote, they are more likely to vote than if they hear that there is a problem of low voter turnout and few people plan to show up to the polls.

This finding fits into a large body of psychological research that suggests that people are heavily influenced by social norms. If everyone else is doing something, people want to join in.

A 2012 study recently showed how social norms can be leveraged on social media to get more people to vote. If you noticed a button on Facebook that said “I voted,” you might have been one of the 61 million people who unknowingly participated in this experiment.

The study found that when Facebook users were shown the “I voted” button alongside a social message that showed which of their friends had voted, they were much more likely to vote than if they were shown an informational message or no votes at all. The researchers found that this social message led to 340,000 extra real-world votes. This number of votes matters, especially since the 2016 election was decided by only 107,000 votes in three states.

Have people make a commitment

During Obama’s 2012 election, voters were given cards that asked people to “pledge” to vote in the upcoming election. Research suggests that this kind of tactic works. Generally, if people make a promise, they will want to stick with it.

And there are subtler ways to make people feel like they are making a commitment to vote. One study conducted during the 2008 presidential election found that helping people make plans for how they are going to vote on election day increased voter turnout by 4.1%. If people make a plan or a promise, they’re not going to want to deviate from it.

Going forward

The best method for getting people to vote may be to combine all of these strategies. For instance, a website could invite people to “pledge” to vote, and then tell people that their public voting records will be examined after the election to see if they followed through with their pledge. People’s pledges could be publicly shared on social media, and if people follow through with their pledge, they can share that they were a “validated voter” in the election and that public records prove that they voted. This strategy, to my knowledge, has not yet been tested, but it combines the already-tested strategies of having people make a commitment, applying a little pressure, and using social norms.

The United States has one of the lowest voter turnout rates of all developed countries in the world. If we use some of these strategies, maybe that can change.