Vote: All the cool kids are doing it

I KNEW it.

In this case, that’s surprisingly unsatisfying.

See, I have felt for years that trying to guilt people into voting by emphasizing how few people vote, and how important it is, and how they’re really bad people if they (like all of those other degenerates) don’t vote…is really, completely ineffective.

And, here, research discussed in Nudge that confirms my practice experience, culled from hundreds of hours spent doing voter registration and Get-Out-the-Vote work, that telling people to vote because not very many other people do is exactly the wrong way to approach increasing voter turnout.

If we want to increase voter turnout (and, from the perspective of nonprofit organizations working with marginalized communities, we do!), what we need to do is channel people into voting, prime them for the voting experience, and, if we can…

make it sound like other people ARE voting, so they should, too.

I thought about this a few weeks ago in class when, despite the oncoming spring, 9 out of the 15 women in my class were wearing the exact same boots.

I mean, in marketing, no company would ever try to convince someone to buy something by stressing its unpopularity (“you should wear boots like these because only 35% of other young women wore them last season”? Not effective.).

We get people to do things, especially things they may have never done before, or may even be reluctant to do, by normalizing the experience, creating a like-minded community, and taking away as much of the uncertainty as we can, in order to make it really, really easy to make the behavior change.

So, what does this look like in the realm of voter engagement, since we want people to shape our electorate, not wear matching footwear?

What if we…

  • Had high school seniors register to vote as part of the classroom experience, when they turn 18, so that they’re registering as a group?
  • Used voter data to target those who are not engaged in the electoral process, by highlighting others within their social networks/peer groups who are? (“Can I register you to vote today? Your neighbors have really high voter participation, so I figured you would probably want to get registered, too.”)
  • Presented examples of reference peers voting, in a sort of micro-targeted ‘Rock-the-Vote’ way?
  • Implemented more user-friendly voting procedures, so that voting wasn’t such an extraordinary experience (like allowing online voting, or allowing people to vote in places they frequent (their own schools/colleges, for example) rather than the church down the street they only go in once every two/four years?
  • Invested in marketing campaigns that underscore not only the civic importance of voting but, indeed, its centrality to our understanding of what it means to be an American…a sort of, “everyone’s doing this, so we’d love you to join us” message?
  • Reached out to underrepresented communities year-round, instead of expecting that they’ll make a big behavior shift right around election time?

What kinds of approaches do you think would ‘nudge’ unlikely voters to civic engagement? How are you shifting from a ‘thou shalt’ to a ‘wouldn’t you like to, too?’ message?

How can we make claiming our civic right as ubiquitous as those boots?

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4 responses to “Vote: All the cool kids are doing it

  1. So using the Fun Theory, if we could just making voting fun, voting would increase. For example, if with each vote a different musical note is chosen then after we submit our votes, we could play back the song we created.

    Or instead of somber polling locations, have snack, a band, and the voting booth returns and is like a modern sleek telephone booth.

    Or maybe with each vote, a camera takes a picture of your face. Then you get a strip of photos like we used to get in the photo booth at Woolworth’s.

    All may seem really out there. But if we could more folks to vote, real folks, we’ve got to wonder what the outcome would be.

    But I agree, we should change our tactics. I’ve never looked at voter encouragement from this perspective. Definitely would be fun project to work on. Kind of what Rock the Vote does and seems to have at least short term success. Now how do we expand that to those older.

    Thanks for a great article today!

    • Thanks, Lesa, for your comments and ideas! I don’t know if it’s even just as much, to me, about ‘pure fun’, but about the idea that there are so many things that we don’t necessarily have time to do, or that don’t fit conveniently into our day, that we still make time for, largely because of the social context in which they’re imbedded. And, so, what would it take to make civic participation like that? I mean, what if you knew people would be checking your status somewhere, and that your friends care if you vote? What if voting was a real social event, like when I was in Mexico in 2000 and there were families picnicking everywhere (elections are on Sundays) after voting together (not that I’m saying Mexico’s democracy is superior to ours, just that there’s something to be said for elections as holidays!)? I like the idea of voting places as celebrations, though; I mean, sure, it’s our civic duty, but it’s also pretty super cool, and we don’t claim that nearly as much as we should. You’ve given me new ideas to think about–thank you!

  2. I know I’m a little late to the party, but there is some very interesting work on voter turnout by political scientists. I would recommend starting with any of Gerber and Green’s field experiments, specifically this one: http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/apsrfeb08gerberetal.pdf

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