How to Increase Voting by Removing Its Biggest Overlooked Friction

August 12, 2020  |  By: Irrational Labs
how to increase voter participation - voted stickers

The election in November is important. Generationally important. And somehow get out the vote (GOTV) efforts overlook one of the most critical aspects of this year’s election. This raises the question: how to increase voter participation?

Hoards of people are working tirelessly to get people registered to vote and voting. Organizations are agonizing over the most impactful way to write a “remember to vote” letter. People are making GOTV phone calls and having to armor up to face rejection after rejection. Nonprofits are fantasizing about what inspirational SMS messages will motivate a potential voter to register.

The Fine ‘Print’ on How to Get Out the Vote

But they might not be asking one critical question that could sneakily be the difference between someone voting and not: do they have a printer?

In behavioral science, we analyze the environments in which people act. And in the world of COVID-19, the environment leading up to this year’s election is unique. Voter registration and voting has historically been a paper-based, in-person activity. And in many states, if you are registering to vote and/or voting by mail you have to print out a form and mail it in.

As we’ve become more digital, in many cases we’ve abandoned our printers. And with the ongoing pandemic, remote workers may no longer have access to their work printers, partially explaining the resurgence in printer purchases for some. Printers range from $35 to over $400, so for others, especially younger and lower-income voters, printers aren’t something they own.

how to increase voter participation - funny gif about printing ballots vs mailing

As of the end of March, 11 states did not have online voter registration systems. That means that everyone in those states must mail in a voter registration form.

And in the other 39 states where online voter registration exists, most states require state-issued IDs to register to vote online. Otherwise, mailing in a paper voter registration form is required. Photo IDs are less commonly held by younger and poorer Americans. People in this group are the least likely to own a printer.

Currently, only eight states and DC plan to mail registered voters ballots directly. And while some states like Wisconsin allow for online mail-in ballot applications, others like Alabama require a printed application for a mail-in ballot.

So, while a potential voter may receive a very convincing letter, email, or phone call, once they start the voting process they’re often going to have to print out a piece of paper—either to register to vote or to request a mail-in ballot. For many, this big friction point requires high levels of motivation (and potentially health risks) to overcome, and travel to FedEx or Kinko’s to print (and pay for) these forms.

How to Increase Voter Participation? Decrease Friction

But behavioral science offers some clues here. The 3B Framework teaches us 3 steps to design for behavior change: identify the key behavior, remove barriers, and amplify benefits. In this case, the barrier is: not every voter owns a printer.

So, the answer to how to increase voter participation, and possibly the single most effective thing GOTV orgs can do, is:

Mail the paper voting forms that have to be printed out to people, and include a pre-addressed and stamped envelope so they can be easily mailed in.

Hassles reduce the likelihood of doing anything. A simple opt-out design that reduces friction makes a massive difference in retirement savings, and organ donation. Pre-printing voting forms not only removes the single biggest hassle—psychologically, it effectively begins the process and makes it simple. This further lowers the bar to voting.

So the next time you’re asked by a friend to call, text, or write a letter to encourage someone to vote, request to include pre-printed voting forms with self-addressed envelopes with the thoughtfully crafted and highly inspiring message. And if you’re working for a state that wants to know how to increase voter participation, allow for online voter registration and automatically mail registered voters a ballot.


Want to learn more about how to shape behavior? Check out the Irrational Labs Behavioral Economics Bootcamp.


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