My first election voting by mail was very nearly my first election not voting at all. Ahead of a lengthy trip overseas in fall of 2018, I requested an absentee ballot for the November midterm election, breaking a streak of in-person voting that began in my elementary school cafeteria back in 2008. Voting in person was habitual. Voting by mail was not, so I took careful steps to make sure that my vote would be counted. After receiving my ballot and marking my choices, I signed where requested, sealed the envelope securely, and made a special trip to the post office to buy the necessary return postage. I even pinned my completed ballot to the refrigerator the day before my departure, creating a visible reminder to drop it in the mailbox before leaving. But habit overcame my best efforts: on my way to the airport the next day I came to the unhappy realization that I had forgotten my ballot in the rush to get out the door.
This election year, many Americans will try to vote in a new way and encounter unexpected stumbling blocks. With the coronavirus scrambling the traditional fixtures of voting in jurisdictions across the United States, millions of voters will be participating in the 2020 election in ways that will be new and unusual to them. In my case, I was lucky enough to catch the oversight in time to return home and get my ballot in. But if we fail to fully appreciate the consequences of the changed context of voting this year, all voters might not be so lucky, and participation in this year’s election could suffer a heavy blow.
With the coronavirus scrambling the traditional fixtures of voting in jurisdictions across the United States, millions of voters will be participating in the 2020 election in ways that will be new and unusual to them.
As this year’s primaries in Wisconsin and Georgia showed, the traditional model of voting—standing in crowded lines on Election Day to cast a ballot at your local polling place—is no longer tenable given our new pandemic-dominated reality. To fortify our election systems against coronavirus, officials at all levels of government are moving to rapidly adopt new measures (such as expanded vote by mail and extended early voting periods) ahead of this November’s presidential contest. These changes are upending familiar features of the voting experience across the country.
Absent proactive investments in public education and smart systems design, such abrupt changes risk undermining participation by introducing new hurdles for voters and removing the familiar processes around which many Americans have built strong habits of civic engagement. With the specter of a resurgence of COVID-19 ever present, an election previously predicted to raise voter turnout to an all-time high now risks setting a different record—for historically low participation in a nation already characterized by bleak turnout rates.
Unless we’re able to learn from students.
A few years ago, my colleagues at the nonprofit behavioral science design firm ideas42 set out to investigate why students vote at rates that consistently fall below other demographic groups. Speaking to a diverse sample of students, administrators, university presidents, and civic engagement practitioners across the country, we found that the key to understanding why students don’t participate in elections for which they’re eligible has less to do with their status as students or their age; instead, it has more to do with their newness to the process of voting itself.
An election previously predicted to raise voter turnout to an all-time high now risks setting a different record—for historically low participation … Unless we’re able to learn from students.
In other words, what distinguishes students from groups with higher rates of turnout is how unfamiliar voting is to them, and how removed it is from their daily lives on campus. Given the changes necessary in November, this newness now applies to all of us. Americans intent on participating in the election—first-time voters, occasional voters, and consistent voters alike—will make choices and take actions in an unfamiliar environment. Our work on student voting points to three insights from behavioral science that can be applied to help all Americans vote in 2020.
Give voters clear, credible, and actionable information to navigate new uncertainty around voting processes
When we experience ambiguity and uncertainty about a decision, we tend to back away from it, failing to act. New voters inevitably confront a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty around elections—things like how to vote, if they need to vote on every contest, which address to use when registering if they claim more than one residence (as many students do), and so on. Similar ambiguities and worries will be felt throughout the electorate in our changed voting environment if the local polling place is no longer available, or no longer feels like a safe option.
Making matters worse, new voters also fear that a mistake somewhere along the way could lead to dire consequences. In the case of students, fears that registering to vote in the wrong place could compromise their financial aid status or result in legal liability often lead students to opt out of elections altogether to avoid the risk of messing up. Beyond layering added complexity onto existing electoral processes, COVID-19 introduces a new dimension of uncertainty around the health risks of different voting options that will likely act as a similar depressant on turnout for all voters.
To sustain robust participation, providing voters with reliable, clear, and actionable information about how to vote safely and correctly will be essential.
To sustain robust participation in this context, providing voters with reliable, clear, and actionable information about how to vote safely and correctly will be essential. This means proactive communications from trusted sources about the voting process that anticipate the questions and concerns of voters doing things for the first time, like requesting mail-in ballots or using ballot drop boxes. These information campaigns must address elections-related misinformation without unintentionally reinforcing myths by making untrue claims more salient. At the same time, these efforts to educate the public must be calibrated against the risk of overloading voters with so much information that they disengage entirely.
Beyond equipping voters with the information they need, it is also important to provide user-friendly instructions and tools to help voters return ballots and ensure they are counted once voting begins. Common mistakes like forgetting to sign ballots or sending them in too late result in thousands of rejected ballots in the best of times, and evidence from this year’s primary elections suggests that rejection rates could see a distressing uptick in an election where millions of Americans are newly eligible to vote by mail. In jurisdictions where it is available, ballot tracking offers a powerful tool that both gives voters confidence-building visibility into the mail voting process and also lets election officials communicate with voters in real-time about how to correct errors preventing their ballots from being counted.
Find ways to make remote voting more visible to voters and their peers to sustain a norm of participation
Perceived norms exert a powerful influence on our behavior. In short, we look to what others are doing, or not doing, when deciding what we should do. On college campuses, we learned that voting and election-related activities often aren’t very visible—campaign signs may be less abundant, and canvassers aren’t likely to go into student housing—which means students considering whether or not to vote are unlikely to find any cues reinforcing a norm of widespread participation. While flexible options like extended early voting or vote-by-mail offer voters convenient, reliable, and safe ways to cast their ballots in upcoming elections, they also risk replicating these circumstances throughout the electorate by making voting a much less visible behavior.
In-person voting on election day leaves much to be desired in terms of accessibility and convenience, but from a behavioral perspective, long lines at crowded polling places have the advantage of communicating a norm of political participation during a salient moment of collective action. In a context where voting will take place remotely, the challenge of making participation visible will be heightened for everyone. Simple interventions that make voting more salient to would-be voters can have a big impact by communicating that participation is the norm, but the standard playbook needs revisions for the COVID era.
Long lines at crowded polling places have the advantage of communicating a norm of political participation during a salient moment of collective action. In a context where voting will take place remotely, the challenge of making participation visible will be heightened for everyone.
Conventional measures like “I Voted” stickers, for example, won’t be nearly as effective under stay-at-home orders. Recognizing this challenge, enterprising jurisdictions have found ways to virus-proof signals of participation, such as including digital equivalents of the much-loved stickers in ballot tracking notifications that voters can share to social media feeds. Solutions like Facebook’s “I voted” button or Snapchat’s election filters are other small examples of the kinds of innovations that can raise public awareness, and accountability, around the individual act of voting in coming months.
Support voters in bearing the heavier cognitive burden of following through on their intention to vote
One fundamental principle of behavioral science is the distinction between intention and action—the gap between what we want to do and what we actually wind up doing. Across college campuses, we found that the number of students who say they intend to vote far outstrips the number who actually cast a ballot. A common driver of this intention-action gap is a failure to plan out the logistics—things like when to vote, where to vote or get a ballot, and who to vote with. With so many of us new to remote voting, translating intentions into votes will take extra cognitive effort, even for voters with sterling voting records.
To overcome this barrier, interventions that concretize the act of voting—such as asking voters to make a simple plan covering the “where, when, how, and with who” of voting—have been reliably shown to boost voter participation. For new voters in particular, who often lack the experience that allows voters with more established habits of civic engagement to anticipate and overcome the hassles and hurdles inherent to voting, making these plans can be an especially powerful way to promote follow-through on an intention to vote.
With so many of us new to remote voting, translating intentions into votes will take extra cognitive effort, even for voters with sterling voting records.
Even voters with strong voting habits might benefit from a nudge to form a concrete plan to navigate a changed election landscape as familiar features of voting systems are lost. In particular, first-time mail voters and voters who require in-person services are two groups that election administrators and get-out-the-vote organizations must prioritize for support and outreach, even if conventional modelling suggests they are reliable voters. Across the board, we need to update the playbook of tools like voter pledge cards around new voting options, and find ways to solicit effective commitments consistent with physical distancing guidelines.
As states and counties adapt systems to accommodate a fair and safe election in the weeks ahead, simultaneous efforts must also be made to dispel ambiguity, reinforce a norm of participation, and help Americans both set and follow through on their intentions to vote. The health and future of our democracy depends on bringing as many voters as possible into the electorate this November—and decades of research into human behavior help provide the tools to do so.
(Full disclosure: ideas42 is a Founding Partner of the Behavioral Scientist.)