Nonvoter Innovation Lab

Building a culture of voting with behavioral science

Chronically low voter turnout is a significant barrier to a functioning representative democracy. Despite being founded on the idea of government “for the people, by the people,” turnout in U.S. elections is much lower than in other developed countries. Around 60% of eligible voters cast their ballots in presidential elections, while typically only 40%  participate in midterm elections. While 2018’s midterm elections were a welcome departure from this trend, permanently maintaining an increase in voter turnout is vitally important.

Low voter turnout shapes policies at the federal, state, and local levels, impacting people’s day-to-day lives–even if it can be hard to visually connect an occasional vote to the policies and laws that affect us all. That’s because there is evidence that lawmakers craft policy that serves the preferences of habitual voters and economic elites, yet habitual voters are not representative of the broader population. They skew older, richer, and more educated than nonvoters and have different policy preferences than the population as a whole. To better ensure that our country’s policies represent the needs and wishes of more people, we have to start with voter turnout.

Creating a Culture of Voting with Behavioral Science

Many different tools will be needed to boost voter turnout and build a culture of voting in the U.S.—one of them is behavioral science. While behavioral science can’t undo centuries of marginalization and disenfranchisement, it can help shape our proactive efforts to build a voter-inclusive culture. Innovations like automatic voter registration, communications that leverage social norms, and prompting people to make a plan for election day have shown promising results in increasing turnout. We believe these strategies only scratch the surface when it comes to using behavioral science to help more people cast votes.

The Nonvoter Innovation Lab

Our 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 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.

ideas42 has been applying a behavioral lens to voter turnout for a few years. In 2018, we designed direct mail, e-mail, and text message campaigns driven by behavioral insights and sent them to more than 2.5 million people who were likely occasional voters and nonvoters to help them make it to the polls. Stay turned for results from these interventions in the later part of 2019.

As part of our broader Civic Engagement portfolio, the Nonvoter Innovation Lab’s primary goal is to expand the American electorate in the long-term, rather than just increase turnout for any specific election. As such, our work is nonpartisan. Over the next several years, we will continue to leverage behavioral science to generate new behaviorally informed strategies to help more people take action at the ballot box and scale solutions proven to make our democracy more representative of all Americans. 

Interested in learning how to apply behavioral science to help more people vote? Reach out to us at nvil@ideas42.org or tweet at @ideas42 to join the conversation.

Building a Culture of Voting Through Choice Architecture
The Behavioral Scientist

“Given the level of turnout in the U.S., encouraging more people to vote is unequivocally a good thing. As one illustration shows, if every person who didn’t vote in the 2016 election (but could have) voted for a candidate named ‘Nobody,’ Nobody would have crushed both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Public figures as well as the institutions we interact with regularly—like our employers, schools, local organizations, and even social media platforms—absolutely should promote and protect a culture of voting.”

Helping People Vote Isn’t a ‘Power Grab.’ It’s Democracy.
Blog

“In recent years, nonpartisan election administrators around the country have taken impressive steps for increased voter turnout, including building robust “vote at home” programs; enacting same-day, online, and automated voter registration; and doing more proactive outreach to low-participation populations. There is more evidence to gather about what works best, but these initial reforms have made good strides in reducing the hassles associated with participating in elections. Further reforms, especially at the federal level, could standardize these steps across the country and create an even larger increase in turnout.”

Graduating Students into Voters
Publication

Sparking Civic Action
Overview of our civic engagement work


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