March 13, 2014

Joy of voting early could boost turnout, study shows

For those who dread Election Day in America – long lines at the polls, lousy weather, finding time to vote among other Tuesday commitments – but eagerly anticipate the outcome of a closely contested race, voting early is potentially like a prepaid vacation: all the rewards and none of the costs.

This according to a Cornell-Louisiana State University team of political scientists with an enterprising way to increase turnout at the polls: promote the joy of voting early.

“We tried to design a nonpartisan, get-out-the-vote campaign to emphasize the ‘anticipatory rewards’ of voting early – ample time to enjoy the excitement of the election process – without the ‘anticipatory costs’ – the dread of Election Day inconveniences,” says Adam Seth Levine, assistant professor of government in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“Show your commitment ...”

Some registered voters in Georgia and Ohio received mailings with what researchers termed their “net anticipatory reward” message: “By voting early and not waiting until Election Day, you show your commitment to voting. Because you’ve already done your part, you don’t have to worry about how you’ll make it to the polls on a busy Tuesday. You simply get to look forward to Election Day and hearing about the results.”

October 2012 mailings (see sidebar for example) to registered voters in the four largest counties in Ohio and in Georgia, in advance of the 2012 presidential election, increased early voting in both states. And in the battleground state of Ohio, their get-out-the-vote effort slightly increased the overall voter turnout, Levine and his co-author, Christopher B. Mann, reported at a Yale University conference in February, just as candidates and party organizations were gearing up for the 2014 midterm elections.

Levine and Mann were testing a new theory of voter motivation by capitalizing on the “anticipatory rewards” effect that often induces people to pay in advance for vacations. “Of course, part of the joy of a vacation is the time actually being on vacation,” Levine notes. “But another part is the excitement as you look forward to the vacation. These are rewards that accumulate in the days and weeks leading up to departure day.”

The political scientists were motivated by field experiments that tried to recreate the “local fair” character of 19th-century polling places, when voter turnout was much higher than the dismal participation levels of late-20th and early-21st century America. Publicity for the modern “festival at the polling place” created anticipation for the event, and they wondered: Could we do the same for early voting, by using direct mail to promote anticipatory rewards? (They decided not to emphasize “anticipatory costs” because that might discourage voters who already knew about all that.)

Of the 32 states with early in-person voting (EIPV), Georgia and Ohio were chosen for the experiment because they represented two different kinds of states: a “safe” and a “battleground” state. Mailings to promote EIPV, although written by the political scientists, were sent out by a nonpartisan organization with a history of promoting voter participation. Because the mailing lists were drawn from county board of election records, the political scientists were able to determine who signed in to vote and when – early, on Election Day or never – but not how they voted.

In Georgia and Ohio, slightly more people (about 1.9 percent at most) decided to vote early, after receiving get-out-the-vote mailings. In Ohio – but not in Georgia – variously worded mailings increased turnout by as much as 1.7 percent.

“The fact that turnout was only affected in Ohio was not surprising at all,” Levine commented. “We expected anticipatory rewards to be higher among voters in a battleground state like Ohio than in a safe state like Georgia.”

“It’s worth underscoring,” Levine and Mann reported at the Yale conference, “that what we’re talking about here is a single piece of direct mail informing people about the possibility of enjoying enhanced anticipatory rewards from voting early. This was able to noticeably increase turnout in a crowded communication environment like Ohio during the 2012 general presidential election.”

The researchers received no monetary support from the 501c3 partner organization that sent out mailings, or from any other funding source.