- Young voters face a set of distinct barriers when it comes to voting, which can lead to lower rates of participation.
- Text messages are an effective tool to increase voter engagement and participation.
- Some messages increase turnout more than others: finding the most impactful framing expands the voter toolkit.
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.
In 2018 specifically, Millennials and Generation Z voters turned out at 42% and 30% respectively—compared to 64% turnout among Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation. 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.
The Nonvoter Innovation Lab at ideas42, a nonpartisan effort focused on broadening the electorate through behavioral science, aims to tackle low turnout head-on by partnering with large-scale organizations. In 2018, we partnered with Democracy Works, a civic technology organization and maker of TurboVote, an online platform that guides users through the voter registration process and updates them about elections in their area. TurboVote’s userbase is a diverse subset of the electorate, including a high concentration of voters under thirty. These young voters face a set of distinct barriers when it comes to voting, which can lead to lower rates of participation. Working with Democracy Works, we set out to understand what types of messaging strategies can help young people overcome barriers to voting.
To tackle these barriers, we designed a series of text messages that TurboVote sent to nearly 900,00 users leading up to the 2018 primary and general elections. To identify the most effective framing for getting more young people to the polls, we designed four different messages leveraging behavioral insights, testing two messages (plan-making and social influence) in the primary elections and all four (including social accountability and social exclusion) in the general.
Learn more about these solutions and results from our randomized controlled trial here.
In both the primary and general elections in 2018 we were able to help more people vote through simple, low-cost behaviorally informed text messages (roughly $4-5 per vote generated). This increase in turnout is particularly striking considering the control group already receives a robust set of reminders as part of TurboVote’s standard message flow. Our results confirmed that employing strategic behavioral levers can create significant positive behavior change, even when layered on top of effective reminders that already change behavior. Strong youth participation in elections is core to the mission of the Nonvoter Innovation Lab to build a representative electorate and facilitate a habit of voting for all Americans. Our partnership with Democracy Works in 2018 generated additional votes and valuable insights for future exploration about the types of message frames that move young voters