A version of this article originally appeared in the Behavioral Scientist, a magazine that examines the world through the science of human behavior.
With COVID-19 scrambling the traditional fixtures of voting in jurisdictions across the United States, millions of voters will be participating in the 2020 election in ways that will be new and unusual to them.
Absent proactive investments in public education and smart systems design, such abrupt changes in voting methods risk undermining participation by introducing new hurdles for voters and removing the familiar processes around which many Americans have built strong habits of civic engagement. With the specter of a resurgence of COVID-19 ever present, an election previously predicted to raise voter turnout to a high water mark now risks setting a different record — for historically low participation in a nation already characterized by bleak turnout rates.
Unless we’re able to learn from students.
A few years ago, my colleagues at the nonprofit behavioral science design firm ideas42 set out to investigate why students vote at rates that consistently fall below other demographic groups. We found that it has less to do with their status as students or their age; instead, it has more to do with their newness to the process of voting itself.
In other words, what distinguishes students from groups with higher rates of turnout is how unfamiliar voting is to them. Our work on student voting points to three insights from behavioral science that can be applied to help all Americans vote in 2020.
Give voters clear, credible, and actionable information to navigate new uncertainty around voting processes
When we experience ambiguity and uncertainty about a decision, we tend to back away from it, failing to act. New voters inevitably confront a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty around elections — things like how to vote, if they need to vote on every contest, which address to use when registering if they claim more than one residence and so on. Similar ambiguities and worries will be felt throughout the electorate in our changed voting environment if the local polling place is no longer available, or no longer feels like a safe option.
Making matters worse, new voters also fear that a mistake somewhere along the way could lead to dire consequences. In the case of students, fears that registering to vote in the wrong place could compromise their financial aid status or result in legal liability often lead students to opt out of elections altogether to avoid the risk of messing up. Beyond layering added complexity onto existing electoral processes, COVID-19 introduces a new dimension of uncertainty around the health risks of different voting options that will likely act as a similar depressant on turnout for all voters.
So, providing voters with reliable, clear and actionable information about how to vote safely and correctly will be essential. This means proactive communications from trusted sources about the voting process that anticipate the questions and concerns of voters doing things for the first time, like requesting mail ballots or using ballot drop boxes. These information campaigns must address elections-related misinformation without unintentionally reinforcing myths by making untrue claims more salient. At the same time, these efforts to educate the public must be calibrated against the risk of overloading voters with so much information that they disengage entirely.
Beyond equipping voters with the information they need, it is also important to provide user-friendly instructions and tools to help voters return ballots and ensure they are counted once voting begins. Common mistakes like forgetting to sign ballots or sending them in too late result in thousands of rejected ballots in the best of times, and evidence from this year’s primary elections suggests that rejection rates could see a distressing uptick in an election where millions of Americans are newly eligible to vote by mail. In jurisdictions where it is available, like Minnesota, ballot tracking offers a powerful tool that both gives voters confidence-building visibility into the mail voting process and also lets election officials communicate with voters in real-time.
Find ways to make remote voting more visible to voters and their peers to sustain a norm of participation
Perceived norms exert a powerful influence on our behavior. We look to what others are doing, or not doing, when deciding what we should do. On college campuses, we found that voting and election-related activities often aren’t very visible, which means students considering whether or not to vote are unlikely to find any cues reinforcing a norm of widespread participation. While flexible options like extended early voting or vote-by-mail offer voters convenient, reliable and safe ways to cast their ballots in upcoming elections, they also risk replicating these circumstances throughout the electorate by making voting a much less visible behavior.
One silver lining to long lines at crowded polling places is the signal sent to would-be voters about political participation in their community during a salient moment of collective action. Simple interventions that communicate that voting is the norm can have a big impact, but the standard playbook needs revisions for the COVID era.
Conventional measures like “I Voted” stickers, for example, won’t be nearly as effective under stay-at-home orders. Recognizing this challenge, enterprising jurisdictions have found ways to virus-proof signals of participation, such as including digital equivalents of the much-loved stickers in ballot tracking notifications that voters can share to social media feeds.
Support voters in bearing the heavier cognitive burden of following through on their intention to vote
One fundamental principle of behavioral science is the distinction between intention and action — the gap between what we want to do and what we actually wind up doing. Across college campuses, we found that the number of students who say they intend to vote far outstrips the number who actually cast a ballot. A common driver of this intention-action gap is a failure to plan out the logistics — things like when to vote, where to vote or get a ballot, and who to vote with. With so many of us new to remote voting, translating intentions into votes will take extra cognitive effort, even for voters with sterling voting records.
To overcome this barrier, interventions that concretize the act of voting — such as asking voters to make a simple plan covering the “where, when, how, and with who” of voting — have been reliably shown to boost voter participation. For new voters in particular, making these plans can be an especially powerful way to promote follow-through on an intention to vote. And in the COVID era, first-time mail voters and voters who require in-person services are two additional groups that election administrators and get-out-the-vote organizations must prioritize for support and outreach, even if conventional modelling suggests they are reliable voters.
As election officials roll out new systems to accommodate a fair and safe election in the weeks ahead, simultaneous efforts must also be made to dispel ambiguity, reinforce a norm of participation and help Americans both set and follow through on their intentions to vote. The health and future of our democracy depends on bringing as many voters as possible into the electorate this November — and decades of research into human behavior help provide the tools to do so.
(Disclosure: ideas42 is a founding partner of the Behavioral Scientist.)