The best voter turnout for U.S. presidential elections occurred during the Gilded Age, the last few decades of the 19th century. Back then, 78% of eligible voters on average showed up to vote. Not bad compared to the 2012 presidential election that only attracted 58% of eligible voters.
Just like today, people in the late 19th century thought they were too busy to vote, so the political parties had to figure out how to make the voting process more appealing. Since humans are such social animals, they turned Election Day into a big, all day, all night party with parades, rallies, speeches, bonfires and plenty of free booze. Free-flowing whisky and, truth be told, bribery created a crowd of enthusiastic voters. It didn’t hurt that in some cities, like New York, 90% of the voting places were in saloons.
Dr. Donald P. Green, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, wanted to see if history would repeat itself in the 21st century. In a series of experiments, family-friendly parties were hosted at several election sites. He found out that social activities organized around elections, even “lame professorial parties,” did increase turnout.
Learn the science driving a voter’s behavior.
Your organization can adopt the best of the Gilded Age’s election practices – the social experience – to increase voter turnout for your elections. Social events will also provide the best atmosphere for leveraging the behavioral science principles that drive people to vote.
“Election participation is a social activity,” said Dr. Melissa Michelson, a Professor of Political Science at Menlo College and a noted expert in voter mobilization strategies. “Scientific research proves that individuals are more likely to vote when they know their friends have voted, or when they see many others are doing so.”
Here’s the scientific explanation. Voting is a “normative behavior” — it adheres to certain social norms or standards. We vote because we feel compelled to adhere to an injunctive norm – what we’re supposed to do according to society. We’re supposed to do our civic duty and vote.
Descriptive norms — how people actually behave — also influence our behavior. Seeing or hearing about other people voting makes us want to vote too. It’s the popular thing to do. Injunctive and descriptive norms influence how we behave and whether we vote.
Social norms are so enormously powerful that behavior becomes catchy. When eligible voters see what other people in their network are doing, they’re more likely to do it themselves. They will model themselves on that peer behavior and conform to the social norm of voting.
Celebrate the election kick-off.
You can make this behavioral principle work for your election or voting event by giving people the opportunity to socialize around voting, for example, at a celebratory event on the eve or first day of an election. Ask chapters to host their own local election parties too, or find members who are willing to organize informal happy hours. Share the excitement on a Google Hangout or other web conferencing platform. And don’t forget to set up a few laptops so members can vote on the spot.
With some planning, you could arrange a week of election promotions with a mix of live and virtual events supported by blog posts, print and digital articles and social media updates. Members are always looking for excuses to meet up with friends and peers and will appreciate adding fun election events to their social calendar.
Create election buzz at events.
If you have conferences, meetings, events or webinars scheduled before or during the election period, ask speakers and instructors to remind attendees about the election and encourage them to vote. Provide talking points to anyone who makes these announcements.
Include voting information in conference packets or bags. If you’re using a mobile conference app, provide a link to the voting platform from the home page. Promotional signage will also keep the election on the mind of attendees, especially if voting is held at the meeting.
Governance is a serious business, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Next time, experiment with a historically tested tactic: Election Day parties.