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'I Pledge to Vote' Gets People to the Polls

Recent research identifies a promising way to get first-time voters to cast a ballot.
Voters cast their ballots on November 4th, 2008, in Clifton, Virginia.

Voters cast their ballots on November 4th, 2008, in Clifton, Virginia.

As the mid-term elections near, Democrats face a familiar dilemma. Younger Americans overwhelming agree with the policies they espouse, but they're less likely to vote than their older, more conservative counterparts.

How to get them to the polls? Recent research shows the effectiveness of a simple tool: Don't just tell them how important it is, or remind them of the date. Get them to pledge they will fill out a ballot.

A study carried out during the 2016 election season found that "young people who pledge to vote are more likely to turn out than those who are contacted using standard get-out-the-vote materials, "writes a research team led by political scientist Mia Costa of Dartmouth College.

"This simple mobilization tactic could stimulate increased voter turnout among a relatively inactive segment of the eligible electorate," they add.

The study, published in the online journal PLoS One, described twin experiments the researchers conducted in cooperation with the Environmental Defense Fund. The first took place in Pennsylvania in the spring of 2016, in advance of that state's primary. The second occurred in Colorado that fall, ahead of the general election.

In both cases, canvassers spread out on a number of college and university campuses as part of a get-out-the-vote program. They asked students and other passers-by either "to sign a petition form indicating they would like to be reminded about the election, or sign a pledge to vote."

Two weeks before the election, all the people who signed up were mailed a reminder to vote. Those who signed the pledge were instructed to "Remember your pledge to vote."

Across the two experiments, signing a pledge to vote, rather than a traditional petition, increased voter turnout by 3.7 percent overall—and by 5.6 percent among people who had never voted before.

In Pennsylvania, "first-time voters who signed the pledge turned out at a rate that was 8.8 percentage points higher than first-time voters who received the standard mobilization method," the researchers write.

While Costa and her colleagues can't definitively say why pledging increases turnout, they point to several psychological explanations. They note "there is a longstanding body of literature that suggests individuals will stick to a previous commitment" to avoid cognitive dissonance—that uncomfortable feeling that arises when your behavior fails to reflect expressed intentions.

They further note that pledging to cast a ballot "may invoke self-perceptions of oneself as a 'voter.'" People tend to act in ways that are consistent with those of the groups they identify with. These effects are felt more strongly when attitudes about a particular behavior "have yet to be fully crystallized," which explains why making the pledge has a greater impact on first-time voters.

They also point out that getting people to cast their first ballot is very important in that it often sets a pattern for future elections. "If voting is a habitual behavior," the researchers write, "getting new voters to the polls could have substantial long-term effects on overall voter turnout."

This is hardly the only way to increase turnout; there is evidence that skillful use of social pressure can have even bigger results than seen here. But this technique is simple and inexpensive to implement.

So if you're out there canvassing this fall, be aware that reminders to vote only get you so far. You're more likely to make a difference if you can get that person to take the pledge.