Your Neighbors Could Find Out, So You'd Better Vote

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, October 27, 2008

After nearly two years of political jockeying for the presidency, hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising and wall-to-wall campaign coverage in the media, nearly half of all Americans eligible to cast ballots in the presidential election may not bother to vote. Turnout for primaries, as well as local and municipal elections, often runs well below 50 percent.

Several efforts have been made in recent years to boost voter turnout in the United States, which is among the lowest in the democratic world. Campaigns run extensive registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts aimed at supporters, and authorities have eased access to polling places and offered more flexible voting rules.

Three political scientists, however, recently discovered an extraordinarily effective way to get people to vote.

Alan Gerber, Donald Green and Christopher Larimer drew up a list of more than 180,000 voters in Michigan. One group of 99,999 voters was set aside as a control group -- these people just voted as they usually do. The rest were divided into four groups.

Members of one group got a letter each 11 days before a 2006 election exhorting them to vote because it was a civic duty. Members of another group received a letter saying that the researchers were studying their voting habits -- the mailing said, "You are being studied."

The third group got a letter pointing out that whether someone votes is a matter of public record -- registrars maintain publicly available lists of those who show up at the polls. (Whom they vote for is a secret.) The letter went on to note whether people in the recipient's household had voted in the 2004 presidential primary and general election.

The fourth group got a letter showing not only whether they had voted in the 2004 elections but also which of their neighbors had voted. The letter said that after the coming election, the entire neighborhood would receive another mailing that laid out -- household-by-household -- who had voted.

"These were the most homely pieces of direct mail in the history of direct mail," said Green, who works at Yale University. "They were sheets of computer paper. They had no graphics and used block courier type. They are the exact opposite of the slick four-color mailings that campaigns send out."

Homely though they were, the letters had a powerful effect. The control group's turnout rate was slightly less than 30 percent. Among those who received the "civic pride" letter, turnout was 6 percent higher than the control group's. Among those who were told they were being studied, it was 12 percent higher. Among those who were shown whether they had voted in the previous election, the turnout was 16 percent higher.

And telling people what everyone in the neighborhood had done the previous Election Day -- and letting them know that they would be similarly informed about the current election -- boosted turnout by 27 percent.

The effectiveness of snitching on neighbors exceeded that of live telephone calls and rivaled that of laborious, face-to-face canvassing, the political scientists wrote in an article published in the American Political Science Review this year. Direct mail costs peanuts compared with other techniques.

The Michigan experiment was conducted before a primary, but this team and other researchers have demonstrated the same effect in other local and municipal elections and the 2008 Iowa presidential caucuses. Automated calls ahead of the 2008 Michigan primary informing people about their neighbors' voting history had the same effect.

"Many people are puzzled that we know whether they voted -- they don't know voting is a matter of public record," Green said.

Although people were generally not annoyed at being shown their voting history, they were occasionally annoyed at having it revealed to their neighbors.

Gerber, who also works at Yale, said campaigns would have to use the technique with caution, because the last thing a candidate wants to do is annoy people who are going to vote for him or her. But Green said nonpartisan groups, even public authorities, might consider using the technique to boost turnout, especially in municipal elections that often bring out just 15 percent of eligible voters.

The researchers said they did not set out to get their technique used in campaigns. Rather, they were trying to understand why turnout in American elections is so low -- when it once used to be very high. (There is also, paradoxically, the opposite mystery: Some political scientists have asked why turnout is as high as it is, given that individual voters have such little effect on the outcome of the election.)

In the 1880s, Green said, turnout used to touch 80 percent. By the 1920s, it was down to 40 percent. The reason, he said, was a number of well-meaning electoral reforms.

Elections in the mid-19th century were festive affairs, and people gathered to carouse, jostle one another and vote. They sometimes cast their ballots on a stage to cheers and jeers. Voting, even their choice of candidates, used to be extremely public.

A series of progressive reforms in the late 19th century turned voting into a private affair. Campaign operatives were kept clear of polling stations. People got to vote in secret, and few knew whether their neighbors voted.

Turnout plummeted.

What this suggests is that, besides civic pride and political conviction, a central reason people vote is that democratic participation is an intensely social act. Politics, candidates and campaigns offer us zones of connection with other citizens -- even our political opponents. It gives millions of people common topics of conversation.

Voting used to be that way, too. We certainly don't want to go back to the time when casting ballots involved fistfights and booze, but the Michigan experiment suggests one way we can revive some of the social aspects of voting.

Your vote may count for very little in the outcome of an election, but it may count for a lot in the eyes of your friends and neighbors.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company