Here's a situation many may face this fall: The deadline to ask for an absentee ballot is a week away. You head to your state's website and download the PDF of the form to be mailed in. But your printer is out of ink, and expected delivery is one week out.
You tell yourself you'll come back and figure something out. But all the sudden it's six days later and you're about to miss the deadline, despite your best intentions.
Voting by mail will be a powerful tool for ensuring voters make their voices heard during the coronavirus pandemic. To set it up for success this fall, there is no shortage of steps the government must take — from ensuring local election office capacity to shoring up the Postal Service.
But there is also a human angle: To maximize use of mailed-in ballots, we need to understand and plan for how humans react to unfamiliar and somewhat complicated tasks that lack clear deadlines.
Unfamiliarity, hassle factors and procrastination. Those are labels for three behavioral breakdowns that people will confront. They cause a drop-off between having an intention to do something and actually taking action. Here's how we can help voters overcome these breakdowns for vote-by-mail, using what we know from the field of behavioral science.
Unfamiliarity. For many, absentee voting is a new and unfamiliar process. For younger people, they aren't accustomed to communicating by mail at all. Anything new has a learning curve — and unfamiliarity can be compounded by lack of trust. Will my ballot get here on time? Will it be counted?
Solutions start with tapping the power of what's called the familiarity principle: We're more likely to prefer something when we see and hear it more. So election administrators need to start talking about voting by mail now — and not just from a policy perspective. They need to show examples of people requesting ballots and walking through the process — preferably community members and recognized figures, in order to build trust.
Thanks to the power of social norming, people are more likely to do something when they think others are doing it too.
Hassle factors. These are the seemingly trivial things that get in the way of accomplishing a task. Remote voting is filled with them, from trying to find the right information on state websites to tracking down stamps. For many, the anticipation of dealing with these things is enough to cause them to not even want to start.
Reducing the hassle factors of voting by mail demands policy change, effective process design and technological innovation. For example, while some states let voters request ballots online, most absentee voters must still print, sign, stamp and mail their completed ballots. A digital transition would reduce steps and materials required. States could also limit hassle factors by sending every voter a ballot, not waiting for them to ask.
Recognizing these are huge undertakings, entrepreneurs are responding with creative ways to reduce current hassles. MailMyBallot.org lets voters in some states fill out an online form for requesting a ballot from the proper local election official. Vote From Home 2020 enlists volunteers to mail absentee request forms to voters.
Governmental messaging can help people proactively navigate the system. It should give clear direction, without jargon or assumptions about understanding. For example, differentiate between "postmarked by" vs. "received by" and lay out exactly what they mean. Rather than saying a form is "due 7 days before" an election, provide the date — not because it's particularly hard math, but because it's one more to-do that causes people to drop off.
And voters can get bits of actionable information needed to complete a task — the number to call if your requested absentee ballot never arrives — using tools such as VoteAmerica's election office locator.
Procrastination. This can be worse with voting remotely, since there isn't one big moment we're preparing for and experiencing collectively. Without a single Election Day when voting is a priority, it's easy to put it off. In behavioral economics, the "planning fallacy" tells us we're overly optimistic about our ability to finish tasks on time. We don't leave ourselves enough time for the work, or the hiccups that might get in the way.
The first antidote is a clear time limit. Externally imposed deadlines increase follow-through. Deadlines during several weeks when voting-by-mail is possible, such as the newly launched Vote Early Day, will create a signpost to rally around.
After that, we can reward the early birds. Campaigns and colleges can create teams and use competitions to encourage returning their ballots as quickly as possible. Instead of "I Voted" sticker selfies, schools and politicians can encourage the sharing of photos of sealed ballot envelopes going in the mail — or emulate the Baltimore Votes idea of sending swag for voters to show off.
This sharing also taps into the most powerful nudge in voting: peer influence. We're more likely to vote when we know others are, too.
Requesting and returning your ballot early is good for voters because you can't put off something you've already done. And it's good for everyone else: Avoiding a last-minute surge reduces stress on election offices to process ballots -— like we saw in several states with primaries last week.
Helping voters make a plan is another tried-and-true strategy for getting out the vote, because it forces people to think through details and makes intention more real.
In a tool my company built, voters can track their progress through the voting journey, checking off bite-sized actions and celebrating each one. The "endowed progress effect" tells us we're more likely to achieve a goal if we feel we've already made progress toward achieving it. Helping voters see where they are and what comes next increases follow-through.
Avoiding new things, getting discouraged by hassles and putting off tasks that seem annoying — all are part of being human. And it's easy to overlook the seemingly "little things" that shape each voter experience. But if we want to maximize participation in November, we must be clear about the ways behavioral realities can thwart our best intentions, then design strategies for voters to overcome behavioral breakdowns.
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- Wis., Mich., Pa., have mail ballot extensions — for now - The Fulcrum ›
- Podcasts: How to vote this November - The Fulcrum ›
(Jeff Swensen, Getty Images)
Riegel is the co-founder of Motivote; a peer-to-peer social accountability platform that uses behavioral economics to improve voter turnout.
On paper, I'm a picture-perfect civically engaged millennial. I majored in political science, served in Teach for America and earned a master's in public administration.
But despite my passion for politics, I never voted in non-presidential elections. I knew it was important but didn't make it a priority.
Imagine what the country would look like if part-time voters like me showed up consistently.
In graduate school, I managed a year-long project on what it would take to make that happen. To answer that, I needed to understand what stops plugged-in, socially conscious and politically opinionated young people from turning out.
First, a caveat: Even getting to 100 percent turnout, on its own, would not solve our crisis of democracy. We need deep, structural reforms to ensure elections are fair and elected officials truly represent their constituents. That said, getting more people who can vote to actually vote is critical to building accountable and inclusive government. And it's a concrete way for communities to feel empowered in the democratic process.
If we don't peel back the layers of not voting, we'll stay blinded by the premise that if the ad copy were just catchy enough or if the celebrity PSA were just funny enough, more people would turn out.
This blindness is in part why spending on voter engagement skyrockets while turnout doesn't budge. We keep throwing money at the problem, rather than viewing voting as a behavioral breakdown.
That breakdown is the fault of "micro-barriers" — the comparatively small things, real and imagined, that get in the way of following through. (This is not to discount structural barriers to voting, like strict ID requirements and voter file purging, which demand a different set of interventions.)
Through hundreds of interviews with college students and 20-somethings, we've heard it all: "I'm still registered where I went to college and didn't know about the election until I saw Facebook today." Or, "I had a work trip and forgot to request an absentee ballot on time." Or, "this is too confusing. I'll do something wrong and feel dumb."
Such surmountable hurdles represent a gap between intention and action. We have all sorts of cognitive biases against following through on what we say we'll do. Across all areas of our lives, we're overly optimistic about our ability to complete socially desirable actions and underestimate what could get in our way. Voting is no exception.
Does "My diet starts Monday" sound familiar? That's present-bias, or preference for immediate gratification. A great example is online grocery ordering: Those who order far ahead stock up on more healthy items and spend less overall.
So when you register, you're imagining yourself as an A+ citizen fulfilling your civic duty. When Election Day gets here — and it's raining and you're tired and you have 100 things to do — your aspirational self slips away.
Another cognitive bias at play is overconfidence. If you're the type who believes voting is a good thing, you think you'll do it when the time comes. Your confidence blinds you from paying attention to things that could trip you up.
And the data backs this up: The dropoff between registering and actually voting is twice as steep for young people. A total of 31 percent of young people didn't vote in the 2018 midterms because they were too busy, 13 percent because they were out of town and 7 percent because they forgot. In contrast, only 3 percent of young people didn't vote because they didn't like the candidates or issues — underscoring that exciting candidates or messaging are not silver bullets.
To be clear, every generation votes less when younger. Despite "back in my day" nostalgia, when they were in their 20s baby boomers voted at the same rate as millennials now.
But these patterns are compounded by unique elements. It's no coincidence the viral Buzzfeed News piece "How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation" opens with a young man describing why he didn't register: "Fill out a form, mail it, go to the specific place on a specific day. But those kind of tasks can be hard for me to do if I'm not enthusiastic about it."
This reflects errand paralysis for a generation defined by self-optimization and overworking. Many tasks millennials find paralyzing remain stubbornly analog, like printing an absentee ballot request and putting it in the mail.
As a symptom of burnout, we put off these tasks "in avoidance, as a way to get off the treadmill of our to-do list" — and that leads to "dumb, illogical decisions." Like not voting when you know one vote makes a difference and you care about the outcomes.
Having come to understand not voting as a behavioral breakdown, focus on whether the strategies to drive turnout are actually bridging those intention-action gaps.
If you're simply pushing out more info, without structuring a supportive environment for navigating that info, you're not solving the problem. Effective supports include plan-making interventions, progress tracking and accountability for following through.
A number of strategies from behavioral science help combat cognitive biases to follow through on intentions, borrowing from other markets. DietBet adds friendly competition and monetary payouts to weight loss. ClassPass charges $15 if we flake on workout plans. The Long Game enters us into a lottery every time we put money into savings.
These are examples of commitment devices, decisions in the present to keep us on track to accomplish goals. We're precommitting to following through — with rewards or consequences for our future selves. When we view voting not as simply another behavior that be procrastinated and deprioritized, we're able to invest in what works to close the turnout gap.
- The question to ask in 2020 - The Fulcrum ›
- Pandemic or not, young people remain key to elections - The Fulcrum ›
- An invitation to Gen Z: Describe your wish for America. - The Fulcrum ›
- Poll: Young people want to vote by mail, but don't know how - The Fulcrum ›
- Steven Olikara, cultivator of young and centrist leaders - The Fulcrum ›