One Way to Get Out the Vote

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Remind wavering citizens that their friends will ask them whether they filled out a ballot.

By Tom Jacobs

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(Photo: Marc Serota/Getty Images)

What drives people to take the time and effort to cast a ballot? Commitment to a candidate? Disdain for the opposition? A simple sense of civic duty?

No doubt each of those applies to some voters. But newly published research points to another, often-overlooked factor: social pressure.

A team of behavioral economists led by Stefano DellaVigna of the University of California–Berkeley concludes that, if asked, we want to be able to truthfully tell our friends and neighbors that we did indeed fill out a ballot.

“It is common for neighbors, friends, and family to ask whether we voted,” the researchers write in the Review of Economic Studies. “If individuals care about what others think of them, they may derive pride from telling others they voted, or feel shame from admitting that they did not vote.”

Sure, people can falsely claim they voted, but for many that, too, can induce shame and/or the fear of getting caught. “People don’t like lying,” DellaVigna said in announcing the paper’s publication.

Although we are alone in the voting booth, casting a ballot is, in many ways, a social act.

One experiment described in the study took place in the summer and fall of 2011 in the Chicago suburbs. Volunteers visited 13,197 residences — a mix between places where all all adult residents voted in the previous election, and places where none did so.

Flyers were left on doorknobs, informing residents that a volunteer would come around on the following day to ask them some survey questions. The flyer either referred generically to “a survey,” or specifically stated that residents would be asked about “your voter participation in the 2010 election.”

When the survey-taker rang the doorbell the next day, “voting households were slightly less likely to answer the door” if they knew in advance it was about voter turnout. In contrast, non-voters “decreased their survey participation by 20 percent” — a sign many were embarrassed to admit that they hadn’t voted.

Another experiment was conducted in November of 2010, again in the Chicago suburbs. During the five days before the election, researchers posted a flyer on the doorknobs of 20,000 homes — either one that simply reminded people to vote, or one that said they’d be contacted shortly after the election “to conduct a survey on your voter participation.”

The researchers found the reminder flyer had no effect, with voter participation slightly below that of a control group. But the flyer that informed residents they would be asked about their participation “raised turnout by 1.4 percentage points, a sizable effect,” the researchers write.

The results are a reminder that, although we are alone in the voting booth, casting a ballot is, in many ways, a social act. The notion that our friends and neighbors will expect us to vote — and lower their opinion of us if we admit we didn’t — is sufficient incentive to get more than a few wavering people to the polling station.

That’s something worth keeping in mind if you’re manning the phones and trying to convince someone to cast a vote.

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