Keeping up with the Joneses, at the polls

Getting out the vote.

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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Lots of people say they vote; far fewer actually do. In a study of the 2004 presidential election, 77 percent of voters claimed to vote, but only 60 percent did. Now a pair of political scientists, Alan Gerber and Donald Green, have hit upon a way to close the gap: threaten to tell the neighbors.

Gerber and Green experimented with different varieties of social pressure to get people to the polls. They found that while reminding voters of their civic duty helped, the most dramatic increases came from publicizing voting records. Their findings hold great potential for political campaigns in which turnout can spell the difference between victory and defeat.

Phone banking costs $20 to $30 per vote while traditional direct mail runs $60 a vote, says Green. Our costs were more like $3 to $4."

Green and Gerber sent mailings to four groups of randomly chosen voters before the August 2006 Michigan primaries. One mailing urged: "DO YOUR CIVIC DUTY -- VOTE!" A second told voters that researchers were using public records to study their turnout. The third mailing listed members of the recipient's household and whether they had voted in recent elections. The fourth blared,  "WHAT IF YOUR NEIGHBORS KNEW WHETHER YOU VOTED?" and revealed the voting records of both household members and neighbors. (The study appeared in the American Political Science Review in February.)

Compared with a control group that received no mailings, turnout increased with the level of pressure exerted. That was no surprise. What startled the researchers was the degree of success. Green expected the "neighbors" mailing to boost voting by 2.5 percentage points. Instead, turnout leaped more than 8 points.

Despite the success of the Big Brother approach, Green prefers a friendlier strategy -- a return to the festive atmosphere of early America, when voting was a public celebration with bands, booze, and bonfires. (See Findings, January/February.) "Have friends over to your house on election day," Green suggests. "We can drink whiskey and then go cast our ballots. You're changing the turnout problem from getting people to go to the polls to getting people to go to a party. And that's an easier problem." 

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