Editorial: Vote shaming is one way to boost turnout

Published: 2/28/2019 12:05:11 AM

Call it positive peer pressure or, less kindly, call it vote shaming, but telling people who might otherwise be disinclined to go to the polls that their friends and neighbors voted drives turnout up considerably.

Entrepreneurs have created ingenious computer applications to let people see whether their friends, whatever city they might live in, vote. The information gives people a powerful incentive to perform their civic duty.

Social scientists and political operatives have known about the peer pressure effect for years. “It proved to be the most effective intervention ever uncovered by an order of magnitude,” Harvard public policy professor Todd Rogers told New York Times writer Amy Chozick. Chozick’s recent article about the tactic explained that political campaigns have been reluctant to deploy the guilt-bombing weapon because, well, it makes people angry. But so does Donald Trump.

Entrepreneurs have products ready, applications that match voting records with email and Facebook friends lists. We’re betting they’ll be put to work before the 2020 presidential election. Your friends won’t know who you voted for, but they will know whether you did your democratic duty.

Political campaigns know that getting supporters to email or text friends is far more effective than knocking on the doors of people on a political party’s checklist. It’s more effective than generic get-out-the-vote drives, too. Peer pressure, or social validation, as proponents prefer to call it, is particularly effective on millennials, only half of whom voted in the last presidential election, according to Pew Research Center statistics cited by Chozick.

VoterCircle, one of the companies offering a voter outreach app, claims that using it drives up the turnout of likely voters by 15 percent and unlikely voters by 10 to 30 percent.

A single text from a friend, the CEO of one relational outreach application firm told Chozick, makes the recipient 10.2 percent more likely to vote. Other claims are more modest, but the expected increase should be enough to make the difference in many elections.

It’s tempting to say that in New Hampshire, home to the nation’s first presidential primary, we don’t need no stinkin’ app to tell us to vote. We wish that that were so. Though New Hampshire placed second behind Minnesota for turnout of eligible voters in the 2016 presidential election at 70.31 percent, according to the website Statista.com, it fell to 16th in the critical 2018 midterm election, when just 54.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. We’ll be curious to see, assuming one or more of the campaigns use the voter relationship software, what the November 2020 turnout will be.

As effective as they are, the new voter turnout tools may not reach people whose network of friends and acquaintances don’t have a history of voting, statistically that means the poor and underprivileged. To increase their participation, and others as well, we urge the nation’s fast-food chains, as the election approaches, to use their packaging to urge their customers to register and vote.

To do, as film director Spike Lee would say, “the right thing.”

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