- Habitual voters do not represent the broader population, which means that many Americans are not reflected in who is elected and what policies are put into place.
- Behaviorally informed postcards are one tool to increase voter participation by leveraging positive social pressure.
The United States was built on the principle of a government by the people and for the people, yet voter turnout—which hovers around 60% in presidential elections and 40-50% in midterms— lags behind many other democratic countries. Chronically low turnout undermines the responsiveness, representativeness, and accountability of our governmental institutions. And this problem is made worse by the fact that habitual voters look different than the broader population; they skew older, richer, and more educated than nonvoters and have different policy preferences than the overall country.
This means the needs and preferences of many Americans—especially young people—are not reflected in who is elected and which policies are put into place. Minnesota’s turnout significantly outpaces the national average, yet still 40% of eligible voters don’t cast a ballot in midterm elections.
In 2017, ideas42’s Nonvoter Innovation Lab, a nonpartisan effort focused on broadening the electorate through behavioral science, began investigating what drives this participation gap. We identified barriers to voting that citizens face in our current electoral system and developed outreach solutions informed by behavioral science to help them make it to the polls. Our 2018 work focused on the context of midterm elections—which often see a high drop-off in participation from presidential elections. This collaborative project with the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State highlights the impact of proactive outreach from state governments encouraging citizens to vote. It also sheds more light on which messaging and behavioral insights can help less engaged voters overcome barriers to being heard.
To tackle these barriers, we designed two experiments to understand whether behaviorally informed messages could increase turnout among low-engagement voters. Working with the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State, we randomized two subsets of voters into three groups and sent them one of the following: a simple reminder postcard, a “treatment” postcard incorporating our behavioral designs, or nothing. For each of the two experiments, we selected a different group of voters to focus on based on their history of participation.
Learn more about these solutions and results from our experiments here.
The creation of a truly representative democracy is an all-hands-on-deck project, and states have an important role to play as a trusted source for election-related information. Our 2018 partnership with the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State shows that behavioral science can bolster states’ efforts by providing simple tools for states to effectively expand the electorate through communications that resonate with people who may have otherwise sat out. Building evidence of what works to get out the vote and continuing to explore innovative solutions can spark civic action—and help more Americans be heard.