I picked up a lot of new habits over the past year. With the pandemic scrambling “life as usual,” everything from how I eat, sleep, and exercise to how I work, relax, and socialize looks different these days. It’s an open question to what extent this new way of life will stick once the world recovers from the COVID-19 crisis. I’d love to hold onto new rituals like daily runs on weekday afternoons or video calls with family on Sundays. My nighttime Netflix watching? I’m less keen to hold onto that.
One behavior that millions of Americans picked up during the pandemic would have far bigger consequences if it were to become habitual — voting. The 2020 election brought voter turnout in the United States to its highest level in decades, with millions of first-time voters casting ballots. Whether or not this level of participation marks a temporary blip or the beginning of a new trend will dictate the course of elections for a generation.
It’s conventional wisdom among researchers studying patterns of civic engagement that voting is a “habit forming” behavior — whether or not someone voted in previous elections is a reliable predictor of whether or not they will vote in the next one. But we shouldn’t assume that all of the new voters in 2020 will automatically form enduring voting habits — not least of all because those with the power to shape the choice architecture of American civic life are actively working to prevent it. We have a big opportunity to make sure Americans who newly joined the electorate in 2020 become lifetime voters instead of one-time voters, and we can turn to four principles of habit formation (and disruption) to understand how to seize it to foster a culture of civic participation, and with it a more representative democracy.
#1 Make it easy
The easier an action is to take, the easier it is to make a habit out of it. Psychologists often draw an analogy to the concept of “friction” when thinking about this aspect of habit formation — the idea being that the fewer obstacles or less resistance we encounter in our choice and action environment, the more likely we are to succeed in forming a new habit. Trying to start a habit of reading before bed? Pull the bookshelf to your bedside and plug your phone in somewhere out of reach (or, even better, in another room). In short, if you want to make (or break) a habit, make it easier (or harder) to act on.
The application of this principle to voting is straightforward. There are a number of basic reforms that we know make voting easier by reducing hassles for people — early voting or weekend voting, prepaid return postage and secure drop boxes for mail ballots, paid time off on election day, automatic voter registration. If we want to help Americans strengthen voting habits, putting measures like these in place is a promising avenue.
On the flip side, we can also help by smoothing out needless frictions in our election processes. Many features of elections in the United States introduce barriers that voters must overcome to cast a ballot — the kind of things Richard Thaler calls “sludge.” If you want to make it hard to form a voting habit, closing local polling places, cancelling voter registrations, or restricting access to convenient options like mail ballots are effective ways to do it. And that’s exactly what many state lawmakers across the country are doing. To help voting habits stick, we need to reduce existing sludge and closely scrutinize measures that may introduce new frictions into our elections.
#2 Consistency is key
For a behavior to become a habit, it needs to be more than easy to act on — it needs to attach to stable features of our environment. You likely pick up your phone when it makes a noise or wash your hands after using a public restroom. In both of these cases, you’re taking an almost automatic action in response to a consistent cue, which gives us a good working definition of a habit. The key insight to draw out here is that disrupting the cue — silencing our phones or avoiding public restrooms — makes the response behavior less likely to occur, resulting in fewer glances at the phone and perhaps dirtier hands.
Voting is a lot more complicated than checking your phone or washing your hands, so you might wonder if the cue-response relationship holds true. Indeed, longitudinal studies of voting behavior suggest that similarly disrupting the context in which a person casts a ballot can break their voting habit. As mentioned earlier, researchers have demonstrated that past participation in an election is generally a reliable predictor of future participation; however they have also found that a change to the context in which someone votes — such as moving to a new city or state — strips away the predictive power of past voting.
Much of the context of the 2020 election is not a permanent feature of voting in the United States. Not all elections will be carried out during a pandemic, nor will all future candidates be as polarizing. That may be a net positive for the country, but it also means that people who voted for the first time did so in a highly unusual context that is unlikely to be replicated in future elections. We need to pay special attention to voters who used temporary voting options like expanded mail balloting or who were brought into the election by unique candidates to make sure they don’t drop out of the electorate if the cues that prompted them to vote in 2020 disappear.
Regardless of how motivating particular candidates or issues are, keeping measures adopted on an emergency basis in 2020 like no-excuse absentee balloting or universal mail voting is one way to help sustain high participation. This would preserve the context in which many new voters participated. States like Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Utah have run all-mail elections for years, establishing universal vote by mail as a feasible, cost-effective way to administer elections that allow broad participation. Other states like California that were on their way to universal vote-by-mail are now working to consolidate changes made in response to the pandemic. In jurisdictions where mail voting was put in place on a more provisional basis, decision-makers should work to maintain the expanded options that many voters, new and existing alike, embraced in 2020.
#3 Repeat, repeat, repeat
Despite its ubiquity in pop psychology, there’s no “magic number” of times you need to repeat a behavior for it to become habitual — it’s highly dependent on the person, the behavior, and the context. For example, something like taking a multivitamin with breakfast may be easy to train yourself to do habitually in just a couple of weeks, while forming a habit of going for a run each morning might take months. There is, however, consensus that the more opportunities we have to rehearse a behavior the more likely it is to become automatic — something we don’t have to consciously deliberate over — and therefore adhere as a habit.
The notion that repetition might help establish a voting habit by bypassing conscious deliberation fits with one of the more widely-cited findings in the field of voter turnout research: when voting is framed to people as an identity (“being a voter”) versus an action (“voting”), they are more likely to cast a ballot. Researchers suggest that when we think about voting as an action, we ask ourselves questions like “is this race important to me?” or “am I excited about the candidates on the ballot?” before deciding whether or not to participate. When we think instead of being a voter as an identity, we don’t ask these kinds of questions every time an election rolls around. As Aristotle put it, “we are what we repeatedly do.”
While presidential races only happen once every four years, the United States is in fact an outlier among democracies in the frequency of our elections. There are many contests before the 2024 presidential campaign, ranging from midterm congressional elections to state, city, or local races. For many Americans, however, voting is something that only happens once every four years. Over the past century, turnout in midterm elections has consistently lagged presidential elections by between 10 and 20 percentage points, suggesting there are millions of so-called “drop-off” voters who sit out all but the highest profile races. Indeed, as I’ve learned interviewing dozens of voters over the years, when people report that they vote in “every election” what they often mean is every presidential election.
Getting people to cast a ballot in a midterm or subnational election, when media markets aren’t as saturated with campaign ads, may actually be a more cost-effective way to lock in a voter’s participation in the next presidential contest. Someone who votes in a midterm is a safe bet to turn out in a presidential election.
#4 A spoonful of sugar helps
If we want new voters to keep voting, they need to find the experience rewarding — or, at the very least, not find it too noxious. We’ve come a long way since B.F. Skinner was experimenting on animals in boxes, but his theory of operant conditioning and study of reinforcement schedules offer one final insight into how to make sure voting habits stick: big, unexpected, and immediate rewards speed things up.
There are a couple caveats that caution against a superficial reading of the power of rewards to accelerate the formation of voting habits. First, it’s not necessarily about material incentives. In fact, there is good reason to expect that an overreliance on extrinsic motivators could backfire by displacing more powerful and enduring sources of intrinsic motivation. Second, the most powerful rewards are not necessarily the biggest; instead, it’s those that surprise us, making an experience more salient and therefore more likely to come to mind the next time we encounter a similar context. Third, you might assume the most powerful reward of all for voters would be seeing your preferred candidate win office, and thus that voting in an election where your candidate loses would frustrate habit formation. This has intuitive appeal but overlooks a critical feature of the neurocognitive mechanics of habit formation: payoffs need to be almost immediate in order for a reward to reinforce a behavior.
An example of one of my earliest elections illustrates these three points nicely. I was voting in a midterm as a new college student in New Jersey. I can’t tell you who was on the ballot or why I had even decided to vote in the first place, but I can vividly recall leaving my polling place, a Methodist church in town, and being greeted by an elderly volunteer with the League of Women Voters who leapt up to shake my hand and thank me for being a voter. The exchange didn’t involve any material rewards, just an enthusiastic affirmation that reinforced my existing motivation; it was entirely unexpected, and for that reason highly memorable; and it happened within seconds of me dropping my ballot into the ballot box.
What can we take away from this example? Well, it may be too late to send an army of volunteers across the country to thank new voters for participating in 2020. But we can make sure that in future elections we more consistently engage voters not only in the weeks and days before an election asking them to vote, but also with meaningful expressions of appreciation afterwards. We can also do things to increase the hedonic charge people feel at the time of voting through big events like election day festivals or smaller gatherings like mail ballot completion nights — “putting the party back into politics.”
To 2024 and beyond
With less than a year gone by since an exhausting presidential contest, many of us may want to think about anything other than the next election. But if we hope to sustain the high levels of participation achieved in 2020, then that’s a luxury we don’t have. With a decisive midterm election in 2022, as well as huge gubernatorial contests in New Jersey, Virginia, and California this year, now is the time to make — or break — the voting habits of a newly engaged electorate.