Public Accountability and Political Participation: Effects of Face-to-Face Feedback Intervention on Voter Turnout of Public Housing Residents

This is a review of Public Accountability and Political Participation: Effects of Face-to-Face Feedback Intervention on Voter Turnout of Public Housing Residents (2010) by Tiffany C. Davenport. Political Behavior 32 (September): 337-368. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

You don’t have to use heavyhanded, intimidating factors to make social pressure work. You can raise turnout dramatically just by subtly reminding people that they’re being watched.

Here’s a few things we know about voter turnout:

  • The urban poor don’t vote.
  • Voter turnout experiments don’t typically focus on non-voting populations like the urban poor.
  • Turnout is lower in municipal elections than presidential elections.
  • Sending door-to-door canvassers with a mobilization message can boost turnout by 8-9 percentage points.1
  • Social pressure can boost turnout by 8-9 percentage points, although it’s only been tried through impersonal means like postcards.2

In the current special issue of Political Behavior (background), Tiffany Davenport reports a turnout experiment that considers all those things at once. For a treatment, she combines door-to-door canvassing with a social pressure tactic. For a target population, she attempts to mobilize the urban poor (Boston Public Housing) during a low-salience municipal election (Boston’s November 2007 municipal elections).

Boston’s November 2007 municipal elections had only 13.6% turnout–and that’s as a percentage of registered voters. Moreover, most of the Boston Public Housing residents included in the study had not voted in the 2004 or 2006 elections. Davenport had her work cut out for her trying to mobilize this group for this election.

She tried two treatments. First, she sent canvassers with a traditional “get out the vote” appeal. Consistent with previous work, this produced a 9-12 percentage point boost in turnout relative to the control group.

For her second (and more important) treatment, she sent canvassers with an official-looking turnout record that they hand-delivered to each door (but without any sort of “get out the vote” appeal–just delivery of the document). If somebody handed you an official looking report showing whether you had turned out in the previous elections, you might get a little spooked into voting.

And it worked. Delivering these turnout reports boosted voting by 15-18 percentage points. The canvassers didn’t threaten to publicize the turnout reports. They didn’t attempt to shame non-voters. They just handed over a turnout report, making the recipient realize that their “private” turnout behavior was being monitored.

The lesson for campaign managers is simple: You don’t have to use heavyhanded, intimidating factors to make social pressure work. You can raise turnout dramatically just by subtly reminding people that they’re being watched.

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