With one Instagram post, Taylor Swift ignited a surge of voter registrations on Vote.org. Samantha Bee is gamifying civic action, Parkland students have made a video and are traveling the country urging people to register to vote, and professors at the University of Michigan have an interesting assignment for their students: make voting sexy. In advance of the midterm election, there is a reinvigorated push to improve America’s low voter turnout rate, which during the 2014 elections was roughly a third of the eligible population (a 70-year low).
Given the level of turnout in the U.S., encouraging more people to vote is unequivocally a good thing. As one illustration shows, if every person who didn’t vote in the 2016 election (but could have) voted for a candidate named “Nobody,” Nobody would have crushed both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Public figures as well as the institutions we interact with regularly—like our employers, schools, local organizations, and even social media platforms—absolutely should promote and protect a culture of voting.
If every person who didn’t vote in the 2016 election (but could have) voted for a candidate named “Nobody,” Nobody would have crushed both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Leveraging behavioral-science strategies can maximize get-out-the-vote efforts. Facebook—amid controversy about the company’s role in election influence—has done something right in this regard with their “I voted” button. When this two-word statement shows up in the Facebook News Feed, a lot more people vote (this is the behavioral principle of social influence: we see that our friends voted and we want to do it, too). As long as it shows up in everyone’s feed, the button is a simple, helpful tool that encourages people to vote—not for a particular candidate, just to vote, full stop. So companies, government entities, and nonprofits could—and should—design nonpartisan tools like the “I voted” button to increase voter turnout, because right now, the U.S. doesn’t have a culture of voting. We’re not even close.
Some state and local governments are starting to optimize the voting process, and the promise of these innovations is well-supported by behavioral science. An excellent example is automated voter registration, where people are automatically registered to vote (with the opportunity to opt out) when they interact with agencies such as the DMV. Oregon was the first state to enact automated voter registration, in 2016, and as a result 272,000 more people were registered, with 44 percent of them voting in the following election. Did all those people make a conscious decision not to vote before registration became automatic? Of course not. By automating and thereby removing a hassle associated with registering, this strategy targets citizens who never vote—an important step for increasing the active voter population. And for people who don’t live in states with automated registration, hundreds of thousands register on National Voter Registration Day—this year, a record number of 800,000 people registered on September 25.
In addition to addressing obstacles in the voting process, companies and platforms can help people turn out using tactics similar to the “I voted” button. Some networks of organizations, like the TurboVote Challenge and ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, recognize the critical idea that large institutions like colleges and companies can be effective promoters of democracy among students, employees, and customers. Even better, they’re using new approaches informed by rigorous research, such as connecting voting to the identities people hold (being a college football fan, or a student, or an employee of a company), getting people to directly urge their friends and family to vote, and clearly linking the outcomes of elections to people’s daily lives. These new approaches and sources of encouragement will be even more important for new voters and nonvoters, some of whom will need more than easier access to engage in the process.
Companies, government entities, and nonprofits could—and should—design nonpartisan tools like the “I voted” button to increase voter turnout, because right now, the U.S. doesn’t have a culture of voting. We’re not even close.
Some people may be uncomfortable with the government or private companies (like Facebook) designing our environments to promote a particular behavior. But these institutions already shape our behavior every day in countless ways by designing the environments in which we make choices. This makes them choice architects whether they want to be or not, and because all designers are human, no design is ever neutral. We should support the pioneering institutions that pursue evidence-based strategies to increase overall voter turnout in a nonpartisan way—or risk further erosion to our democracy.
A future where the institutions that already shape our lives in so many ways help foster a culture of voting is possible. In the 2018 midterms and beyond, nonpartisan tools like the “I voted” button, and other simple behavioral designs, can bring us closer to our ideal of a participatory democracy.
Disclosure: The authors are employees of ideas42, a founding partner of the Behavioral Scientist.