This is part of a series of posts about behavioral science and COVID-19. Click here to read about some of the most important behaviors during this pandemic—like seeking medical help, responding to humanitarian crises, and adapting to remote work in a global outbreak.
The coronavirus outbreak is upending core functions of our democracy, forcing Americans to choose between their right to vote and their health. As a result, officials across the country are looking to flexible voting options – like vote by mail – as their best hope for maintaining safe and secure elections.
While a handful of states already have robust mail balloting systems in place, others will have to rapidly develop new infrastructure to meet the needs of the moment. These changes will require major policy and logistical updates within a matter of months. But just as crucially, voters will be asked to update how they view and approach voting.
Changing public perceptions and habits isn’t easy. Look no further than the current battle to get individuals to adopt appropriate physical distancing practices. When looking to make changes to how people should vote, we expect to hit similar roadblocks. But insights from behavioral science can help us both anticipate those barriers and produce solutions that address them head-on.
As states and election administrators develop and implement new voting systems, at ideas42 we are supporting their work by creating designs that keep voters at the center the process. We’re especially focused on designing solutions for three challenges that are key to achieving broad and representative turnout in these difficult times.
- Increasing voter engagement
A major challenge in coming months will be ensuring Americans understand the new and expanded voting options available to them. Elections during the pandemic will look drastically different than in the recent past, requiring voters to update longstanding mental models of how to cast a ballot. In addition, the ever-changing landscape on the elections under COVID-19 will be rife with confusion and misinformation.
In response, we can help voters hone in on accurate information by creating consistent, strategically redundant communications around new voting systems. Unifying the message from state officials under a single, credible banner can reduce confusion and drown out half-truths and outdated guidance. We can also better prepare voters by previewing processes and deploying simple rules-of-thumb or metaphors (such as relating the mail balloting process to an online commerce experience) that help them internalize the new methods of voting.
This moment also calls for novel approaches to turnout. We can equip voters with social tools that enable them to mobilize their friends and family from afar. Virtual features that let people vote together or publicly share their ballot tracking can create a sense of community and accountability, even in this current environment.
- Building confidence in new systems
Election administrators are in a tough spot. It’s not enough to build good systems, they also have to convince voters that these new systems will work properly and securely. A common refrain voiced by voters hesitant to embrace mail ballots is the concern that their vote will never reach its intended destination, or that it’ll be counted only if the election is close. Partisans exacerbate the situation by inflating the risks of widespread voter fraud through vote harvesting or duplicate voting. Direct explanations of safeguards often fail to stamp out these concerns. Instead, voters need intuitive signals throughout the balloting process to feel that the integrity of their vote is being protected.
Behavioral science offers a number of insights into both how we form risk perceptions and evaluate changes from the status quo that could help us create new tactics for building up voter confidence in unknown territory. For one, as systems shift, election officials will need to provide operational transparency, offering voters radical openness about how ballots move through the election process. Showing people live counting of votes once they’re received, or demonstrating enhanced signature matching features can easily and accurately build confidence in unfamiliar voting systems.
Voters should also be given more visibility on the process of casting their individual ballots by mail. At polling stations, voters receive blank ballots, mark them, and cast their votes all in-person with full view of the process. Offering that level of oversight in the mail balloting system can help mitigate concerns over lost ballots. Partners like Ballot Scout are already utilizing USPS tracking and intelligent barcodes to support roundtrip tracking. We can build off of this tool (and others like it) to give voters even more control, including updating their own progress, making concrete plans for how and when to return their ballots, and accessing relevant resources to finalize their votes.
- Ensuring equity and inclusion
Officials will be moving quickly in the next few months, prioritizing speed and scale as they update voting options for November. But considerations around equity, inclusion, and accessibility cannot be an afterthought. We need to pay close attention to the very real barriers in the American voting system, both existing and new, that place a disproportionate burden on certain groups, including students, low-income earners, and underrepresented communities of color. Working with these groups to identify potential issues, we can rapidly build solutions that ensure states are meeting the needs of all voters.
The first priority is education and guidance. States should leverage insights from front-line election workers to uncover and provide resources around frequent pain points faced by specific communities. Officials should also tap into trusted messengers, such as churches or local organizations who already serve as resources for their communities under the current system, to remotely support individuals through the voting process. Many of these groups already have traditional voter mobilization initiatives, like Souls to the Polls, that can be reoriented toward the needs of the moment.
Equity measures also need to be built into the processing of ballots to guarantee fairness. As it has in hiring practices, good behavioral design can play a useful role in helping to mitigate biases in the voting system. For example, subjectivity can be reduced from the signature verification process by translating complicated technical training into easy, automated heuristics for workers doing the verifying. In addition, clear and actionable notifications can be used to remove hassles for voters who need to cure a ballot. By identifying these types of opportunities that ensure fair treatment and access, election administrators can promote and protect inclusive turnout.
The Road to November
In the coming months, we will expand our partnerships with states and organizations who are implementing new voting systems in response to the pandemic. We will work with them to identify and design behavioral solutions that seamlessly help voters transition to new ways to vote. If we act fast and boldly, we can have elections in November that are fair and trusted, and ultimately, turn out a record number of voters in spite of the public health crisis we face.
If you are election administrator or organization who is interested in working with us toward this mission, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay tuned to this blog for more tips from the behavioral side of COVID-19.