In the 1980’s the US began an all out assault on teen drug abuse through various PSA campaigns. Clearly if these innocent minds were only made aware of the horrors of drug use they would abandon any notion of getting high again. However, most research has suggested they had exactly the opposite impact.
As Shaunacy Farro of Popular Science puts it, “When anti-drug ads say ‘don’t do drugs,’ they inherently bring up the implicit question ‘should I do drugs?’” That is to say, more kids are prompted to feel like they were missing out on something everyone else is doing. In the kid’s mind, if there are so many kids doing drugs that the freaking US government is making commercials about it, they must be pretty lame for not even seriously considering it.
Social proof is one of the most powerful motivators for human behavior. It’s why your electric bill lets you know how much you are using as compared to your neighbors, or you use your towels the next day at the hotel because the card lets you know other people do it, or you buy that dress you saw on Instagram.
With that in mind, what message do you think a continuous stream of articles and shaming techniques like sending reports out about which neighbors haven’t recently voted, are actually having? Particularly among younger voters more likely to be influenced by their peers, these articles which tend to focus on the youth vote aren’t motivating them to get to the polls, they are giving them an excuse not to.
I want to be clear, I take voting very seriously. I do think people who don’t vote are kind of assholes. But if you are actually interested in getting more people to vote you’ll change your tactics. Succumbing to your ego’s need to hold your civic deed over the head of non-voters and make sure they know they “aren’t allowed to complain about anything” feels good in the moment. It almost certainly does not get them to vote.
Think about what encourages you to vote or do a park clean-up day or another community thing. It’s probably not a bunch of people telling you what an asshole you are for not doing it. In fact hearing about how 80% of people just like you aren’t bothering to clean up the neighborhood park makes you feel like sucker for even considering putting on your work jeans and heading out to help.
This seems counterintuitive but I believe the data is clear. The way to get more people to vote is to change the narrative about voter turnout. I am not suggesting we lie about it, but look for stories highlighting positive trends while resisting the urge to erupt over the ones where “an x% increase in demographic y would have flipped the district and changed the election.” It might make you feel good, but it won’t deliver the result you are looking for. People innately want to belong, if you want them to belong to the group “voters,” give them a positive reason to.
If we’re being honest, when most of us complain about voter turnout, we’re really complaining about the turnout of the demographic that most aligns with us. That’s why, as media gets more targeted, we see things like “college educated white women” as opposed to more generalized county or state data like we might have seen 20 years ago. This is an important point because we also know that we’re interacting more with people more like us and less with people who aren’t. So when you get onto Twitter of Facebook to rant about how you can’t believe 67% of people just like you couldn’t bother to vote today, you think you are offering an explanation to a problem, but you are actually legitimizing an excuse.
Or if you’re just skipping the above to see where this ends up: If you want more people to vote, stop telling them how many people aren’t voting and start telling them how many people, just like them, are.