Voting is like pornography. Non-voting, like pornography, is frowned upon, so folks try to keep it private. But once you threaten to publicize that private behavior, it changes.
Two years ago, Gerber, Green, and Larimer (2008) shook up research on turnout with a stunning experimental result: You can raise turnout dramatically with a postcard. Not just any postcard, of course. If you received one of their postcards, you would have seen your own turnout record over the past few elections. You would also have seen the turnout record of all your neighbors. And you would have seen a warning that you would receive a new postcard after the election with updated data.
Threatening to expose non-voters to their neighbors in this manner had a large effect: Turnout jumped by 8.1 percentage points. That’s as big an effect as sending door-to-door canvassers, but at a fraction of the cost. (Read more about the 2008 study here.)
The most recent issue of Political Behavior is filled with follow-up experiments. I assume that Green and Gerber guest-edited the issue, seeing as they wrote a brief introductory article and contributed to two of the remaining five articles, although the journal credits only the usual editors. If you’re a political consultant and you’re short on time, their introductory article (cited above) boils down the main punchline succinctly. To raise turnout with a postcard, you need these ingredients:
- You need to threaten to monitor whether recipients vote. You need to threaten to disclose non-voting publicly.
- It’s more effective to shame non-voting than to honor voting.
- It’s not necessary to remind people that voting is a duty. They already know that.
In a sense, then, voting is like pornography. Non-voting, like pornography, is frowned upon, so folks try to keep it private. But once you threaten to publicize that private behavior, it changes.
In my next few posts, I’ll take a brief look at each of the articles in this special issue of Political Behavior. Here are some direct links to the reviews:
- Tiffany Davenport, “Public Accountability and Political Participation: Effects of Face-to-Face Feedback Intervention on Voter Turnout of Public Housing Residents“
- Costas Panagopoulos, “Affect, Social Pressure and Prosocial Motivation: Field Experimental Evidence of the Mobilizing Effects of Pride, Shame, and Publicizing Voting Behavior“
- Christopher Mann, “Is There Backlash to Social Pressure? A Large-scale Field Experiment on Voter Mobilization“
- Alan Gerber, Donald Green, and Christopher Larimer, “An Experiment Testing the Relative Effectiveness of Encouraging Voter Participation by Inducing Feelings of Pride or Shame“