We’re 21 days out from November 3, experts are warning about the cracks in our electoral system, and there are millions of Americans who are facing barriers when casting their ballot. Unclear voter registration deadlines, deliberate and systemic voter suppression tactics, and now the COVID-19 pandemic, have exacerbated the problem.

It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment. Organizations and institutions — from universities, to companies, to nonprofits — can be effective promoters of democracy among their audiences of students, donors, employees, and customers to encourage them to vote. While certain voter suppression tactics — such as strict ID requirements and voter file purging — require a unique set of political and legal interventions, we can all turn to behavioral science to understand the psychological barriers to voting — and do something about the problem. Every election year at Blue State, we help our clients mobilize their audiences to vote and encourage their networks to do the same — and this is the thinking in which we ground our approach.

By applying some tried and tested audience behavioral design & engagement strategies, we believe that organizers working to get voters to cast their ballots will see promising results.

Behavioral barriers to voting

The COM-B model of behavior is used by behavioral scientists to understand why people may fail to take on behaviors and what potential interventions can be used to encourage the behavior. The model posits that in order for a behavior to happen, three factors must be present: capability, opportunity, and motivation. When a behavior is difficult to perform (i.e. little capability or opportunity), people become less motivated to do it. If one or more of the factors are lacking, then people are less likely to carry out the behavior. 

We can see this framework play out clearly in the scenarios for why people don’t vote. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the most common reason non-voters between the ages 18-64 did not participate in the 2018 election was due to being too busy and/or having a conflicting schedule. Other behavioral-related factors included not being interested, being out of town, and forgetting to vote.

There are a whole host of other behavioral-specific reasons why COVID-19 will make voting even harder for people this election. Nearly 50% of voters have indicated that it may be difficult to vote in the 2020 election due to COVID-19-related factors. Ideas42, a behavioral science consulting firm, identified that one major challenge that has emerged from COVID-19 is the shift towards using mail-in or drop-off ballots. While having options to vote theoretically makes it easier, Ideas42 indicated the emphasis to use mail-in ballots will require voters to “update their mental model in a very quick period of time” — thus reducing the potential capability (from the COM-B model) to vote. Another COVID-19 complication is skepticism and a lack of confidence in the absentee ballot process. Ideas42 notes that these attitudes may only spread given continuous false claims by President Trump around mail-in voting fraud.

Getting people to vote using behavioral science

While the process is going to be undoubtedly complex this year, there are still clear ways to make sure your audiences can overcome these behavioral barriers to vote, ensuring their voice is heard. We recommend that any communications around GOTV efforts should leverage the following techniques and tactics rooted in behavioral science:

1. Clarifying the process & making a plan to vote

People are more likely to complete a task if you can get them to mentally visualize the process. The same insight applies when it comes to voting. People are more likely to vote if they understand what they need to do to vote and then use that information to make a plan to vote. By helping voters make a mental connection between the situation (election season) and the behavior (voting) in advance, it becomes more likely that voters will do as they plan. Audiences may be more likely to vote (and less likely to succumb to the lack of capability to vote) if they decide to vote next Sunday, 4:30 PM sharp, versus “sometime next week.” If you schedule the date and time to vote, it will generally be harder to forget to vote. 

And this has been proven to work: When voters were asked over the phone to take a pledge to vote followed by a series of questions that mentally took them through the process of voting, they voted at a rate 4 percentage points higher than people who did not receive the call. 

A study by Nonprofit VOTE on nonpartisan voter turnout groups found that groups who provided information around voting (including voter guides, ballot measure informational sheets, etc.) were more effective at getting people out to vote. Here are some questions you can ask your audiences so they make a plan to vote:

  • Where do I vote?
  • When do I vote?
  • When and where do I vote if I can’t make it on election day?
  • What identification do I need?
  • Can I still vote if I’m not registered to vote?

For the 2018 midterms election, Ideas42 tested messages and reminders that centered on helping voters make a plan, and found out that these messages increased turnout by nearly half a percentage point. And, during the 2017 Alabama senate race, to make sure Black voters could meet voter-ID constraints, grassroots organizations launched multiple campaigns to help Black voters make plans to ensure access to proper IDs well in advance of the election.

Behavioral science shows that voter engagement is achieved through clarity. In a time where COVID-19 is upending the typical processes in which people usually vote, organizations should aim to provide clear communications to their key audiences around accurate and up-to-date information on the absentee ballot process so voters can more easily visualize this year’s voting process. By creating consistent, extremely straightforward, clear, and strategically-redundant communications — your audience will be prepared.

2. Leveraging identity

Many decisions we make are based on how we perceive ourselves. When people are primed to think about an identity they inhabit, they often act in ways that fit that identity. This behavioral concept of identity can also be leveraged to encourage voting. Priming a person’s identity as a “citizen” or “voter” can actually encourage them to actually vote.

A 2011 study found that by using a noun/personal-identity phrasing  (“be a voter”) over a verb phrasing (“voting”) in communications dramatically increased voter turnout in two state-wide elections. And, in a test led by Ideas42, they found that using identity-based messaging turned out Minnesota voters by 0.5% more. While a half percentage point may sound low, it can make a valuable difference when scaled up to a state’s population, especially when considering the thin margins of the 2016 election in some states. This messaging emphasized the pride of Minnesota’s high voting record (“Minnesotans show up for one another…This is your community. Be a voter!”). 

Identity-based messaging from a Minnesotan election.

source: Ideas42

Your organization can drive audiences to vote by showing them that yes, voting secures their political future. But it’s also about identity and self-expression. When a person is referred to and views themselves as a civically engaged individual, they are more likely to follow through on the actions that make up that identity.

3. Social Pressure

Behavioral science says that people find an inner sense of satisfaction from behaving in accordance with a social norm. We tend to behave in ways that are consistent with how we think our peers behave, particularly if we’re unsure of how to act ourselves. Because of that, people can be motivated by forms of positive personal accountability and signals that a behavior is common to ensure they follow through on acting on the norm. 

When it comes to voting, GOTV messages that use social pressure to motivate people to cast their ballot have been shown to be effective at increasing turnout. This could include sending someone a letter showing their past voting history, emphasizing that many people vote, and/or thanking people for voting in previous elections. Shaming tactics, however, have resulted in backlash as well as making people feel coerced into doing something. It is also important to emphasize and communicate desirable norms — audiences may be less likely to vote if they see a message that emphasizes that “most people don’t vote.” They may be more motivated to vote if they see a message that asks them to “join millions of others like you in voting.”

Your organization can leverage social norms and positive forms of social pressure to show that their audiences are just like others who are voting this election. Whether you’re a nonprofit talking to donors, an advocacy organization to constituents, or an employer to employees — you can drive home how your audiences, as a collective, have the opportunity to ignite change.

Conclusion

In an election year where the stakes are high, it is imperative for all of us to make it clear for our networks why they should vote and how to vote. Behavioral science provides us a framework to do that. By starting from a point of empathy — enabling us to understand why people don’t vote — we can address those psychological barriers and craft engagement strategies that remove those barriers, and ultimately encourage people to make their voice heard.

The most important thing to remember is that every organization, from corporations to nonprofits, has the ability and responsibility to encourage civic engagement. Motivate your employees, students, customers, or donors to use their voice this election. 

The stakes are too high to do otherwise.


Want to talk about the tactics above, or have other questions about this upcoming election season? Let’s chat.

Sign up for our newsletter

Enter your email address so we can notify you about new articles, case studies, and more.