Department of Human Behavior

Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008; 1:30 PM

Washington Post staff writer Shankar Vedantam, who writes the Department of Human Behavior column,was online Monday, Oct. 27 at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss a new technique to boost voter turnout.

In Monday's column he writes that researchers found that if they sent people mailers telling them whether they voted in the last election and which of their neighbors did and did not vote last time -- and also a promise to do the same thing after the current election, turnout soared.

Shankar also hosts the new Discussion group: Counter-Intuition, which lets you play devil's advocate with issues and ideas.


Shankar Vedantam: Welcome to this online chat to discuss the column I wrote this morning about an unusual way political scientists have found to boost voter turnout. When voters get letters in the mail telling them that they and their neighbors will be informed about whether they do or do not vote (using public records) turnout soars. Do you think this is a clever way to boost the abysmally low turnout rate in the US, or creeping Big Brother?

I found this research particularly interesting because it answers two questions that seem almost mirror opposites. The first is why so few Americans vote -- and the research suggests it is because we have lost most of the social aspects of voting that used to be part of elections through the late 19th century. The other question is why so MANY people vote, both because one vote in a hundred million does not make much of a difference, and because the electoral college system privileges a handful of battleground states over others. The study suggests that people vote even if their vote does not count for much because it includes them in a shared conversation with others, including their political opponents. Your vote counts for a lot, in other words, in the eyes of your friends and neighbors.


Totally Creeped out: That my neighbors would get a newsletter that would identify whether or not I voted! One of the prerogatives of a democracy is that I can choose not to vote, and not get any shinola from my neighbors if I decide not to, I would hope! That is a decidedly Orwellian move and I hope pollsters don't go that route. I have enough political telemarketing coming my way as it is.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for this note. I definitely understand where you are coming from. When I first heard about the study, I found myself feeling very uneasy. But the researchers only used information that was already public -- county registrars track whether people voted or not -- so what's the problem with making publicly available data more readily accessible?

I can see particular problems with this technique if used for partisan gain -- and I would be surprised if this will not get used for partisan gain, or maybe already is being used for partisan gain. But wis it problematic for a non-partisan group, or even the state itself, to send out these mailers to all voters because of the belief that voting is both a right and a responsibility, and the state should do whatever it can to encourage people to shoulder that responsibility? Your thoughts?


Elkridge, Md.: Just wanted to share this: As I was driving this morning past the Security Square Mall in Baltimore, Maryland, I saw that the electronic sign (that's on the Security Boulevard side of the Mall)had a message saying that Mall ownership and management supports Barack Obama. Wow -- I've never seen a political endorsement on a mall's electronic sign before!

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Elkridge. I have seen a lot of these signs too. Some of them are unsurprising -- given the obvious political leanings of the clientele, but a mall? Even if the mall owners think that Maryland generally votes Democratic, surely there must be Republican customers who are offended by the sign and will take their business elsewhere? Shouldn't economic self-interest, if nothing else, preclude such signs?

I am also curious what you think business owners are trying to do with these signs? Are they just voicing their personal views? Are they trying to capitalize on partisan sentiment to boost sales? Or are they trying to keep people with different political beliefs away?


Berkeley, Calif.: A very interesting article. I wonder about the novelty aspect of this study: have the researchers done any follow-up work to determine whether people become non-responsive to the "shame" inducement to vote when it's used repeatedly?

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Berkeley. You raise an interesting question. I think it is fair to say there is enough research to show this is not a flash in the pan kind of result. As the column noted, it has been observed in primaries and general elections, at the state and national level, and using mailers and robocalls. That seems to be quite a robust pattern.

The point you make about shame wearing off with time woud have to be tested empirically and I don't think it would be possible to do that until these techniques start to be applied more widely. I am guessing the answer is that shame will continue to be a powerful motivator even after the first two or three episodes -- you don't really see people caught once or twice with their pants down completely disregarding social norms and approbation, do you?

I can see this making less or more of a difference given the importance of the election. In some ways, if the election is very trivial, I wonder whether letting neighbors know that only one in ten of them are voters might actually dissuade people from voting? Shame could work both ways, couldn't it?


Manassas, Va.: I disagree with the premise that it's a virtue to increase turnout. But who are these extra "voters"? People who use food stamps. People who give birth to criminals. People who walk away from their mortgages. THEY should get the right to vote? I think not. That's why I'm working on Election Day to observe people's credentials as they vote, to ensure that ONLY those who properly register and have EVERYTHING match can vote. If that leads to 4-hour lines, well, that's the price you pay when your neighbor forgets to put his middle initial in his registration card.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the note, Manassas. I would be interested to know what other listeners on this chat make of this note -- it certainly does express a sentiment that is felt strongly in some quarters. There has been a running debate now for decades about who ought to vote -- should the vote be limited to people who have the diligence and ability to elect the best leaders, or should it be universal? I think there have been numerous attempts made down history to select the "best voters" in various societies, and they have invariably come to bad ends. It is obvious that a state needs to make sure that there is no fraud in an election, but I think doing anything more -- especially with an explicit intent to keep some people away from voting -- is deeply troublesome (to say the least). Invariably, one thing that happens is that the people whom you think are the best voters happen to be the people who agree with your political views, whereas the people who are "incompetent" happen to support other candidates.

What do you all think?

_______________________ Your Neighbors Could Find Out, So You'd Better Vote (Post, Oct. 27)


Arlington, Va.: Why not just implement mandatory voting like they do in places such as Australia? Even if you choose not to vote for anyone in particular you still have to show up. Of course maybe that would be a problem when "none of the above" takes the largest share of the votes.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Arlington. This is clearly the opposite view of the previous note from Manassas. Is it in a nation's best interest to force everyone to vote?

It would certainly increase turnout. One political scientist I talked with a long time ago thought it appropriate that only half the country elects a president (given turnout hovers around 50 percent) because they are the half of the country that is motivated enough to vote. Democracy, this view suggests, is not really a collections of universal views, but a collection of a subgroup that cares the most about politics. Is he right or wrong?


Hanover, Md.: I think the effect of this notice can go the other way, too. If someone chooses not to vote and wants to make their objection widely known, a mailing identifying you as someone who didn't vote could help serve that purpose.

Shankar Vedantam: I agree with Hanover. The shame effect works only if people are ashamed about not voting. For the person who proudly trumpets their non-voting status, I also have trouble seeing how a mailing telling all their friends and neighbors about it will do much to help!


Alexandria, Va.: For years I have thought the United States could boost voter turnout by declaring the first Tuesday in November a national holiday. The fact that our elected officials are chosen by such a small proportion of our population is very disturbing to me.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Alexandria. This is a really simple suggestion. Many countries in the world do have holidays on their national elections. Doesn't not having a holiday create a bias against working people, especially people working in jobs with very little flexibility (who may have some strong views on how the country ought to change) ... ?


Washington, D.C.: Manassas is downright dangerous! Hope he/she never needs to use food stamps!!!

Shankar Vedantam: Thought I would post this. Manassas, would you care to respond?


Kensington, Md.: On the shaming (in a fun way) front, has a great little toy they've created. You send in the names and email addresses of some friends, and each one of them gets a personalized video about how the election was lost because -John Doe] was too lazy to vote. It's really quite clever. (You can see it and try it out at

Shankar Vedantam: I did see this. You can find the link here ...


Fairfax, Va.: I'm concerned about the privacy issues here, but also about the potential for error. Our son moved away from Virginia ten years ago, but when I go to vote, his name is always right above mine on the voter list. The board of elections seems to be quite remiss in managing lists of registered voters. No doubt, he'd be considered a no-show! Multiply by the number of others who've moved but not been taken off the local list, and there you go!

Shankar Vedantam: An interesting point, Fairfax. Does the use of shaming techniques in the absence of really reliable voter rolls create problems? I suppose you could argue that, if you had received one of these mailers, your neighbors would know your son has moved away and there would not really be much shame directed his way ...

On the privacy question, do we really have privacy about information that is public?


Washington, D.C.: I heard about plug-in "shame videos" to send your nonvoting friends where you type in their name, then you get a fake newscast video where the announcer says "The candidate they don't support, wins by one vote! It was Ashley Atkinson's, or whatever your friend's name is, decision not to vote that day that tipped the vote against (Ashley's preferred candidate.)" And then there are shots of protesters booing and holding up signs that say "Ashley Atkinson doesn't care about our country!"

Shankar Vedantam: Right, this is the same link as the one above.


Cameron, N.C.: If this year's election cannot rouse the public to vote I fail to see how shaming them into it would be able to. Now, if it were in effect this year concerning 2004 turnout I can see it working. "You are to blame for W."

Shankar Vedantam: Well, there are clearly going to be tons of people who do not vote next Tuesday -- it would be a shocker if turnout exceeded, say, 65 percent. So we can be fairly sure one in three people will probably not vote. I think people who feel passionately about politics sometimes have a difficult time seeing the point of view of people who are disinterested in politics, but clearly there are lots of them out there. I was recently out in Northwest Pennsylvania to do some reporting, and I am guessing "they are all a bunch of crooks and liars" got as many votes as Obama and McCain.


Washington, D.C.: I was extremely shocked by this article. It is a citizens desire to make a difference and do his/her civic duty by voting, that should drive a person to the polls. Not embarrassment and harassment.

Shankar Vedantam: Say more, Washington. Embarrassment, certainly, but is it harassment to share information that is already public?

Also, what about the other group in the study which only got word about how THEY had voted in the last election (they did not get any word about their neighbors)? This also proved to be very effective in increasing turnout. Would you think it problematic to get a letter or a call saying whether or not you voted in the previous election?


Wheaton, Md.: Wow. That's about all I can say relating to the Manassas post. The people I know who were not consistent voters were those with only a (barely graduated) HS degree, blue collar type workers. Sort of like the boy who has fathered the Palin grandchild. A high school drop out who FORGOT to register. In spite of the "elitist" slurs, I think education is never something to be mocked,as the GOP continues to do; getting educated is the engine that runs our country, including politics.

Shankar Vedantam: Another response to Manassas. (I am not sure there is any empirical evidence that blue collar voters vote less than white collar voters -- could this just be an impression driven by anecdotes?)


Washington, D.C.: Seems to me that when I lived in N.Y., if you didn't vote for four consecutive years, you had to re-register. I'm not sure what effect that would have, other than to keep voter rolls more current. Some would just not care; others might vote to keep themselves on the rolls.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks Washington. I suppose you could make the argument both ways. It would help to keep rolls current, but it also erects a hurdle in the path of someone who does live in the community but does not (or cannot) re-register.


Bethesda, Md.: What's the value of a "GOTV" volunteer, as opposed to a "Keep Out the Vote" pollwatcher? How much GOTV is necessary to overcome aggressive challenging of credentials, carrying on at the polling place, a friendly police officer setting up a checkpoint in downtown Philadelphia, etc.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Bethesda. This is an interesting question, also relevant to the discussion from the reader in Manassas. Can GOTV overcome KOTV (Keep Out The Vote)? If so, how much GOTV is needed?

My guess is that KOTV will likely win that tussle, since GOTV volunteers probably have their hands full just getting undecideds and lukewarms to the polls. I doubt GOTV volunteers would really have the time to do battle on behalf of individual voters who get disenfrachised by KOTV volunteers. But that is just my hunch.


Washington, D.C.: Re: Manassas, Va. Excuse me? Someone who has to use food stamps should lose his or her right to vote? The parents of felons, not just felons themselves, should lose their rights to vote? How about we just go back to letting wealthy male landowners vote, since clearly only people with money and no problems have the right to voice an opinion. Good grief.

Shankar Vedantam: Another note for Manassas.

I agree -- there is a really long and troubled history in this and other countries of people deciding that some voters are smarter/better/wiser than others. The essence of democracy, it seems to me, is precisely to overcome the biases of small groups of elites and individuals with great power. I don't see how you can do that by limiting democracy to some other small group of elites.


Shankar Vedantam: Thanks so much for all the good questions and comments. It is an interesting issue, and I have no doubt we will be hearing more about this technique in years to come, as partisans begin to wield it to boost turnout in neighborhoods that are symnpathetic to their cause.

Make sure you vote -- and get to the polls early if you live in Manassas!


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