Neighborly nudges to do your civic duty

Campaign strategists and political scientists studied how to nudge people to vote for more than a century. The strategists have concentrated on nudging (and shoving) people to vote for a particular candidate. The political scientists, trying to stay detached from partisanship, have studied how to nudge people to fulfill their civic duty go to the polls on election day. In the last few years the cutting edge of political science research on voter mobilization has involved a method known as a field experiment. Originally pioneered in the 1920s and recently re-pioneered by Alan Gerber and Don Green at Yale, field experiments involve randomly sending letters, airing radio and print advertisements, phoning homes, or sending canvassers door-to-door making personal pitches. The random assignment of these various forms of voter outreach is the crucial piece of field experiments – call it the “magic” – that enables researchers to calculate clean estimates for how much these nudges affect voter decisions.

Field experiments have provided a number of insights about the best ways to motivate and mobilize voters. One of the most consistent findings is that personal contact works. Sending people directly to homes is the best and, depending on the neighborhood, most cost-effective strategy for increasing turnout. Better than using impersonal channels like phone banks, mass media advertisements, or super cheap email blasts. The boost in voter turnout from this approach has been on the order of four to ten percentage points depending on the study. Now a working paper from a political science professor at the University of Chicago and three co-authors suggests that the boost might grow even more if you send a neighbor instead of a stranger to someone’s house.

Betsy Sinclair and her team worked with an organization called SCOPE (Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education) conducted a field experiment in a low-income neighborhood in Los Angeles during the 2006 election, sending volunteers into the community to nudge about 15,000 people to vote. In a twist on past experiments, Sinclair divided up the volunteers into two groups. People from the same zip code as the voters they visited – the “neighbors” – and people from other zip codes – the “strangers.” Both types of volunteers used an identical script to make a nonpartisan pitch. An yet, Sinclair finds an additional four percentage point increase among voters who spoke with neighbors – against a baseline of a 5-and-a-half percent increase for those. In other words, when neighbors nudged, voter turnout rates rose by more than 9 percentage points.

Why were neighbors so much more successful than strangers? This remains a puzzle. Even though all volunteers used the same talking points, its possible that during unscripted moments neighbors revealed their personal attachment or knowledge about the area. Or maybe voters picked up on non-verbal cues from the neighbors? Unfortunately, volunteers did not carry tape recorders or video cameras with them so volunteer-resident interaction remains a black box that remains closed. Hopefully, it will open in the future.

3 Responses to “Neighborly nudges to do your civic duty”

  1. LemmusLemmus Says:

    Interesting post; to expand on your last paragraph, I wonder whether this might have something to do with things like (perceived) similarity of SES, race, manners, etc.

    I disagree, however, with two assumptions in your post; one explicit, one implicit:

    1. There is such a thing as a “civic duty” to vote.

    2. A higher turnout rate is better. All other things equal, a higher turnout means that the average voter is less well-informed, which may be expected to lead to worse decisions.

  2. Tristan Says:

    Everytime I read something about this I scoff. As an Australian it’s compulsary to vote. Nobody complains. Technically you could be fined for NOT voting, but it doesn’t happen. The law is enough to get people out there…

    American’s seem a bit crazy to us Aussies here. That whole thing about preserving the right not to vote is crazy. I mean you can put in a bogus vote and just shove the card in the box without filling it out. Or make it an opt out system. Ie, you are free not to vote, but you have to make the state aware that you intend not to vote in any elections.


    PS: I totally disagree with the sentiment of the assmptions above by LemmusLemmus. I think that by making voting non-compulsary it leads to disengagement in the political process. The compulsary participation in Australia, I believe, forces people to become part of the political process. It also will probably force more people from the middle, rather than the extreme views to vote, meaning that goverments won’t have to pander to extremes (such as the extreme christian right in America).

    Therefore, I think that his statement that a higher turnout ‘may be expected to lead to worse decisions’ is false. It might. But it could equally lead to better decisions.

    The assumption of a civic duty is a bit harder to fault. Personally, I think it exists. But that’s a moral not a scientific arguement. However, I can say that it really annoys me and many Australian’s that only half of America bother to vote in an elections that indirectly effects us considerably. (ie, in 2001 elections if Gore had won then Australian troops would not be in Iraq).

  3. Stella Devine Says:

    I have to agree with Tristan, as a fellow Australian. A couple of points to add: People with religious beliefs that prevent them from voting (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses) are exempted, so this implies that the Australian system is actually exercising libertarian paternalism in this regards.

    Furthermore, making voting compulsory places the onus on government to make it as easy as possible for people to do so. Thus, elections are held on Saturdays, there are plenty of polling booths, anyone who is working or going overseas can easily obtain a postal ballot, employers must give permanent staff paid time off to vote if required, etc.

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