The New York Times wrote recently about so called "vote shaming" mailers that had been sent to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire by one of the Republican candidates (or their surrogates). These mailers show the voting record of the individual and their neighbors and inform the recipient that an updated mailing will be sent after the election showing who voted and who did not. The idea is that a person will be motivated to vote to avoid a perception of dereliction of duty by members of their community.
Without wading into the politics of the issue - whether a political candidate should send out the exact fliers that have been sent to voters - it is interesting to consider the actual efficacy of the tactic. Does informing people that their voting history is public and letting the person know whether their neighbors voted actually boost turnout?
The answer is a clear yes. People have a desire to model the behavior of others in their group and are especially sensitive follow the group norm if they know that their behavior will be publicly known. A get-out-the-vote field experiment in a primary election found that turnout was substantially higher among those who received a series of mailings like this before an election, compared to a population that did not get the mailing. So why would turnout be higher in the population who received the mailing?
It has to do with social norms and reciprocity. Recognizing a social norm is not the same as acting on it. Compliance with social norms is greatest when those norms are either strongly internalized or subject to external enforcement. In terms of voting, there is a widely held belief that citizens should vote on Election Day, and citizens for whom this sense of civic obligation is strongest are most likely to vote. The "shaming" strategy introduces the potential for external enforcement of this norm in the form of social surveillance of otherwise solitary and anonymous voting behavior.
In the field experiment, there were five groups. Groups 1 and 2 were the control group and the social norm groups. Groups 3, 4, and 5 show what happens when you add external enforcement and monitoring to the equation.
The figure below shows the impact of the mailings. Informing people about social norms matters but social surveillance truly boosts turnout. A version of the mailing similar to the ones used in Iowa and New Hampshire, with the vote history of the individual and their neighbors, informing them of an intention to follow-up with information about whether they vote in the upcoming primary election, boosted turnout 8.1 percentage points over the baseline! This study demonstrates the powerful behavioral consequences of the activation and social enforcement of widely held social norms. Given that primary elections are often low turnout affairs, if a candidate can mobilize just a percentage or two of voters they think are likely to vote for them can change the election outcome.
For partisan voters, shaming works, especially if they have not voted in the previous election.
So, if you were on the fence about voting, after reading this blog post, maybe you'll proudly wear your ‘I Voted' sticker this Super Tuesday.