Politics

Election 2015: The science behind increasing voter turnout

American Ideal—The Right to Vote
American Ideal—The Right to Vote

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Looking to get out the vote? Try asking a scientist for help.

In recent years, researchers studying voter turnout have identified several ways to encourage people to do their civic duty, according to USC political science professor Christian Grose.

For starters, try public shaming.

"I would make it where it looks bad if you don’t vote, where people are embarrassed to not have their ‘I voted’ sticker on," Grose said.

This wisdom comes from a well regarded study by researchers at Yale University, where the scientists sent everyone in a neighborhood a mailer letting them know who had and who had not recently voted.

When the next election came around, people were more likely to hit the polls, Grose noted.

"The people who received that social pressure message turned out at a rate of 8 percentage points more than those who weren’t contacted, which is a pretty significant increase," he said.

Grose studied voting in the 2008 Iowa caucuses and found people were more likely to go when they knew their neighbors would be there. However, if people were reminded that voting was public and everyone would see who they supported, turnout would decline. 

He said this shows we factor in the social costs to voting.

It's not unlike KPCC's "Make Al Care" campaign, in which reporter Meghan McCarty has been tracking an Angeleno named Al Gordon.

By publicly calling out his failure to vote in local elections, she's putting social pressure on him to turn out come Election Day. It seems to have worked; Gordon plans on voting on Tuesday.

Other studies have found that when people think turnout will be high, they’re more likely to vote.

Research has even found that something as simple as asking someone to tell you how exactly they’ll get to the polls boosts the likelihood they’ll go there.

It also helps to frame voting as a core part of a person's identity, rather than talking about it as simply something one does.

Still, USC's Grose says all of these subtle tactics can only improve the numbers so much.

"You can’t through a piece of mail or a message or even social pressure make the voting populace go from 25 percent to 75 percent turnout," he said. "That’s almost impossible."

That's why lawyer Nathan Hochman wants to try something radically different.

Hochman is a former prosecutor and President of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.

He says he was disappointed and even a little enraged when he learned that only about 23 percent of registered voters voted in L.A.'s 2013 mayoral election.

So he and his fellow committee members set out to change that.

The group batted around ideas like fining non-voters, but decided on something a little more exciting: a cash drawing for casting a ballot.

"The idea was you could enter the voter drawing by merely voting; you could vote for one candidate, the other candidate, you could vote for no candidates," Hochman explained.

Winners would then be selected at random from the pool of voters and given anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000.

This may sound crazy at first, but Hochman said there is research behind this idea. It's been proven to help encourage people to save or take their medicine, he noted. Why not voting?

Ultimately, the L.A. city council passed on the plan, but Hochman said it may come up again.

For now, scientists and politicians will continue looking for ways to convince the public to do its part on Election Day.

Will you be voting on March 3? Let us know in the comments, and check out KPCC's 2015 L.A. County Primary Election Guide.