Editor’s Note: Nicco Mele is on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School and interim CEO of the National Conference on Citizenship. Robert Pozen is senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the former president of Fidelity Investments. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
Most Americans say that high turnout in presidential elections is very important. Yet, on average, only half of eligible American voters cast ballots in presidential elections, and only 40% do so in other federal elections. Participation rates are even lower in local elections, according to 2018 data from the Pew Research Center.
In terms of electoral participation, the United States ranks a lowly 26th among OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, a global club of advanced economies. For example, despite the United States’ image of itself as the world’s preeminent democracy, Italy and Mexico both have higher rates of voter participation.
By increasing the number of citizens who vote, we can enhance the health and tenor of our civic life. Supporting full participation in national elections is not a partisan goal. The key is to support all voters’ participation in all elections.
So what can we do on September 24 – National Voter Registration Day – to get more Americans to vote? One thing we can do is to learn from research suggesting that you can nudge people toward positive action by making it easy for them to make positive decisions. In particular, we can make the application form available in various areas of pre-existing American bureaucracy. Imagine if you could register to vote while filing for taxes using H&R Block or TurboTax, or while enrolling in a retirement plan at your new job, or while signing up for courses as you enter college.
To paraphrase an old saying, the only certainties are death and taxes. What would it take to add voting to that list?
Vanessa Williamson of the Brookings Institution recently conducted a study in Cleveland and Dallas, for which she conducted voter registration drives at workshops that help lower-income Americans file their taxes. The results: her program doubled the likelihood that previously unregistered tax filers would register to vote.
“Voter registration at tax time has the potential to not only increase the voter pool, but to make the voting population more closely mirror the citizenry as a whole,” Williamson writes.
Similarly, companies could add voter registration to their existing processes for enrolling employees in their retirement plans. Corporations have a history of “nudging” their employees toward saving more for retirement; they might also consider nudging their employees toward voting. Of course, any corporate activity in this space must protect workers from coercive attempts by management to mobilize employees for political causes that benefit the company’s bottom line. A 2015 national survey estimated that between 3% and 10% of all US employees – about 4 to 14 million Americans – experience intimidating forms of such political contact at work.
Nevertheless, technology offers safe, “arms-length” opportunities for employers to encourage civic participation. Many companies now use digital portals to manage payroll and enrollment in benefits; adding a screen to a benefits enrollment form that offers new employees the opportunity to register to vote online – without any partisan political messaging – could have a substantial impact in boosting voter turnout.
In 2016, Starbucks did just that, launching a voter registration portal with explicit labeling to reassure employees: “Starbucks does not have access to the information you enter.”
Young adults represent particularly fertile ground for increasing voter participation. Only 25% of Americans between ages 18 and 30 vote in most elections, according to data from Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. A 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965 required all colleges and universities, as part of their federal funding, “to make a good-faith effort to distribute voter registration forms to each student in attendance.”
Millions of young men and women showed up on a college campus in the last month or so to start the new academic year. Yet few of these students were invited to register to vote as part of registering for their courses.
Some universities are changing that.
Northwestern University and Stony Brook University are two leaders in getting their students registered to vote. Leaders at both universities said that they recognized the low rate of civic participation among their students and decided to take action to boost it. Northwestern launched a program to have returning students talk to each incoming student individually about voting. Likewise, Stony Brook University started a program during freshman orientation where student ambassadors provide one-on-one answers to every incoming student about how to vote.
On September 19, the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts released new data about the impact of such programs on college campuses nationwide: between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, student voter participation doubled.
Numerous academic studies and electoral analyses show that voting is habit-forming: once you vote, you are more likely to vote again, and again, and again. The younger you are when you start voting, the more likely you are to continue to vote regularly.
“Since most students have only recently turned 18, we’re preventing them from developing a bystander identity by default,” writes Michael Peshkin, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Northwestern University, in analyzing the results of the programs at Northwestern and Stony Brook.
In short, weaving voting more deeply into our culture doesn’t take much money; it just takes effort. A bit of focus – even just five minutes of focus – can create a lifelong habit of voting, and lead to greater engagement across other activities in our lives.
On September 24, please take a minute to talk to your friends, family and co-workers, and ask them if they’ve registered to vote. Make it clear you don’t care who they vote for, as long as they go to the ballot box. Emphasize the importance of participating in local elections. Put a little effort in to build a culture of participation in our democracy. We’re all in this great American experiment together.