How to make people vote in an election

A vote centre in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Voter turnout has been a big problem for decades in the US. Since 1980, it has hovered between 48 and 57 per cent for US presidential elections.
A vote centre in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Voter turnout has been a big problem for decades in the US. Since 1980, it has hovered between 48 and 57 per cent for US presidential elections.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

To secure the right to vote, Americans have been beaten, jailed and tortured. Some even died. Yet in the 2012 presidential election, less than 54 per cent of the eligible population turned out to vote. That's 93 million people who didn't bother to weigh in on who would lead their country.

Voter turnout has been a big problem for decades. Since 1980, it has hovered between 48 and 57 per cent in the United States presidential elections. That's a far cry from most developed countries - in recent national elections, voter turnout in Belgium was 87 per cent, and Australia and South Korea cleared 80 per cent. Of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the US finished 31st. We have lower voter turnout rates than Slovakia, Estonia and Slovenia.

With both candidates running with high disapproval ratings, the 2016 presidential election could set a record low for voters.

I'm part of the problem: I've failed to vote in more than one election. One year, I was travelling and forgot to fill out an absentee ballot. Another time, I got stuck in traffic, arrived to a big crowd, then turned around so I wouldn't miss dinner.

I'm not like my wife, who once waited in a long line at a community centre to vote, only to find out that she was at the wrong location - so she drove four miles to the right booth and waited again.

As a citizen, I feel guilty about my behaviour. As an organisational psychologist, I'm puzzled by it. There are many voters with strong opinions and, maybe, even preferred candidates but who, like me, simply don't show up to the polls regularly. Can people like me be nudged to the voting booth? Or do we need a push?

A vote centre in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Voter turnout has been a big problem for decades in the US. Since 1980, it has hovered between 48 and 57 per cent for US presidential elections.
A vote centre in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Voter turnout has been a big problem for decades in the US. Since 1980, it has hovered between 48 and 57 per cent for US presidential elections. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Voting seems to be a case of what social scientists call want-should conflict. I know I'm supposed to watch Schindler's List, but it's more fun to indulge in The Avengers. I realise I should eat the salad, but the pizza looks delicious. To borrow a turn of phrase from Mark Twain, I want to have voted, but I don't want to vote.

The first problem is that for many people, voting has little to do with their identities. Do I see myself as an American? Absolutely. Do I think we live in a great country? Of course. I've shown my national pride in various ways. But it never occurred to me that voting could be one.

If we want people to vote, we need to make it a larger part of their self-image. In a pair of experiments, psychologists reframed voting decisions by appealing to people's identities. Instead of asking them to vote, they asked people to be a voter. That subtle linguistic change increased turnout in California elections by 17 per cent, and in New Jersey by 14 per cent.

The reason is that nouns are more powerful than verbs. When I think about voting, I can skip it and still see myself as a good citizen. But when I think about being a voter, now the choice reflects on my character. It casts a shadow.

Even as a newly minted voter, I run into a second barrier: the belief that my vote doesn't make a difference. The way campaigns normally attack this problem is to sound the alarm about close elections like Bush versus Gore in 2000 or the narrow victory for the "Leave" side in Brexit.

Sadly, warnings about low voter turnout don't work. Research suggests that when people hear that others aren't voting, they don't bother to vote either. Rather than try to highlight the benefits of voting, some countries are raising the costs of not voting.

At least two dozen countries have implemented mandatory voting - with fines or community service for those who fail to comply - with major increases in turnout. In Australia, for example, compulsory voting increased average turnout to 91 per cent from 67 per cent.

It wasn't just turnout that changed. Results did, as well. When Anthony Fowler, a public policy professor at the University of Chicago, examined the Australian results, required turnout had a large effect on the outcome - a gain of between 7 and 10 per cent for the Labor Party.

"Democracies with voluntary voting do not represent the preferences of all citizens," he concluded. "Increased voter turnout can dramatically alter election outcomes and resulting public policies."

Punishing non-voters probably won't fly in the US, but there's another way to make us pay for not voting: shame. Political scientists have done this, increasing the probability of voting by more than eight percentage points by sending letters stating that voting is a matter of public record and that people's decision on whether or not to vote will be shared with their neighbours.

Then we run into a third problem. Even if we identify as voters and want our neighbours to like us, we're too busy. To get me to vote, you need to clear the obstacles out of my way. Making calls to encourage people to vote has been shown to have little impact. Helping people make a simple plan for when and where they'll vote can increase turnout by 9 per cent.

Unfortunately, the failure to vote falls along class lines. In 2012, more than 80 per cent of Americans with an annual income over US$150,000 (S$205,000) turned out to vote, compared with less than half of people earning under US$20,000. They aren't negligent: People who are paid hourly or juggle multiple jobs can't afford to miss work and stand in long lines to vote. And this group includes a large number of racial minorities - precisely the people that the civil rights movement was undertaken to help.

What if we made it easier for them? Countries like Estonia and Switzerland have opened up Internet voting. Although there are privacy and hacking concerns, it would help if people could vote from their phones, computers and PlayStations.

But in the spirit of patriotism, I think we should go further. Let's make Election Day a federal holiday (or at least a company holiday). In the spirit of nouns over verbs, call it Voter Day. If I had the day off, and knew everyone else was voting, I wouldn't miss it. It would become a routine part of my responsibility as a citizen - like paying taxes.

We can take a cue from a recent study on enticing people to the gym. Many people intend to exercise but just don't enjoy it. In an experiment designed to change that, social scientists visited a university gym and gave out iPods loaded with some riveting audiobooks.

But there was a catch: The iPods were locked at the gym, so the subjects had to show up for a workout to enjoy listening to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. Over seven weeks, students, faculty and staff averaged 27 per cent more visits to the gym than a control group.

We can do something similar for voting. Set up a county fair at the polls. Offer dancing and games, and people might be excited to roll in and enjoy the festivities.

More than half a century ago, philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between two kinds of liberty - the freedom from constraints and the freedom to make choices. I'm all for giving people the freedom to choose whether they want to vote (and then trying to nudge them towards saying "yes"). But if we want a truly democratic election, we also need to free our citizens from the constraints that prevent them from becoming voters.


•The writer is a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Originals and Give And Take.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2016, with the headline 'How to make people vote in an election'. Print Edition | Subscribe