A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science suggests that we can dramatically boost turnout simply by reminding people to “be a voter” rather than “to vote.” When we ask people to “be a voter” and not just “to vote,” we lead them to think about their social identity.

People like to view themselves as good citizens, worthy of social approval. People also know that voting is something good citizens do. When a person thinks “I am a voter” instead of “I will vote,” they think about their social identity and are motivated to vote.

The PNAS study presents three experiments. I’ll focus on the second and third experiments. In each of these experiments, registered voters were given a brief survey the day before a statewide election (or the morning of the election). Experiment 2 studied the 2008 California gubernatorial race; experiment 3 studied the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial race. Survey respondents answered a handful of questions, but there was one question that contained the experimental condition. In that question, respondents were asked to rate how important it is to them “to vote” (control group) or “to be a voter” (treatment group). That was the extent of the experimental condition.

Then, after the election, the researchers searched official voter records to see which participants had actually turned out. Those in the “be a voter” treatment condition turned out at much higher rates than those in the “to vote” control group. Take a look at the table below. In experiment 2, the treatment boosted turnout from 81.8% in the control group to 95.5% in the treatment group, a 13.7 percentage point (i.e. 16.7%) boost. In experiment 3, the treatment raised turnout from 79.0 to 89.9, a 10.9 percentage point (i.e. 13.8%) boost.