Sparking Civic Action

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Behavioral solutions to expand participation

Active participation is the bedrock of a functioning democracy. A healthy level of civic engagement can take a number of forms: direct political participation through voting, attending community meetings and town halls, and calling or writing to government representatives; expressions of political opinions through signing petitions, attending rallies or donating to causes; public stewardship in the form of keeping public spaces clean; and general service and interaction with our communities.

While structural barriers standing in the way of many people getting involved are very real, there are also many less obvious behavioral barriers at play, such as identity, injunctive and descriptive social norms, and other principles of human decision-making. At ideas42, we’re using our understanding of behavioral science to design solutions to these often hidden barriers.

Voter participation in the United States is a powerful example of the suppressive influence of behavioral barriers on civic engagement. Turnout plunged to a 70-year low for midterm elections in 2014 – only 36% of the eligible voter population cast a ballot that year – and in 2016 we hit a 20-year low for presidential elections – only 55% of the eligible voter population cast a ballot. In a nation built on the principle of government for the people, by the people, maintaining such low levels of voter turnout is both unsettling and at first glance quite surprising.

Though not devoid of tough structural challenges in many localities, the process to register and vote is often relatively straightforward, and in some states like Oregon, there is now automatic voter registration. As a result, the prevailing assumption is often that those who do not vote simply choose not to make time for it or are uninterested. Approaching this issue through the lens of behavioral science asks us to consider other explanations. It shows us that many people who don’t vote do so for reasons other than a lack of intention, and that harnessing key behavioral levers designed to counteract these reasons–like social pressure and plan-making–holds tremendous promise for increasing turnout. In fact, behavioral designs may do so more effectively and at a lower cost than many current approaches.

Behavioral insights can be used not only to impact voting behavior, but to increase civic engagement overall. Thanks to support from our partners and funders, we are working to identify specific barriers to different avenues of civic engagement and design innovative and evidence-based solutions to them. So far, we’re working on:

Strengthening Civic Participation. In partnership with the Knight Foundation, we investigated opportunities for behavioral design to improve civic engagement at the city level. We’re currently starting to identify and implement behaviorally-informed solutions to increase government participation, stewardship of public spaces, uptake of public services, and engagement in local civic activities.

Turning Students into Voters. In the summer of 2015, we explored the barriers preventing college students from voting. These challenges included external hassles, such as figuring out where to mail a registration form, and internal psychological forces, such as feeling that voting “isn’t for me.” This work culminated in a white paper highlighting both the challenges and potential solutions to turning youth and students into active voters.

Raising Civic Participation On Campus. Building on our formative work in student voting, we partnered with the Foundation for Civic Leadership to design the national Campus Democracy Challenge to highlight and celebrate the colleges and universities across the United States excelling in student civic learning and engagement. The non-profit organization Civic Nation ran the challenge, recruiting 209 campuses across 39 states to compete to meet ambitious student voter turnout performance benchmarks.

Nonvoter Innovation LabOur Nonvoter Innovation Lab focuses on delivering the value of behavioral science through operational and policy solutions that impact civic engagement. This work takes many forms, including:

  • partnering with dedicated get-out-the-vote (GOTV) organizations like Democracy Works and the Environmental Voter Project to develop and test innovative messaging strategies
  • collaborating with state and local elections officials to help engage voters
  • accelerating policy reform by leveraging our portfolio of applied work to generate new sources of evidence.

These initiatives are merely the start of broader work applying behavioral science to civic engagement. Stay tuned as we announce new developments and results from our efforts to make the United States more civically-minded in the coming months.

Interested in learning more about this work applying behavioral science to a crucial social problem? Reach out to us: