Last Tuesday, after casting my ballot for a U.S. Senator from NJ and local officials, I was given an “I Voted” sticker. Proudly, I stuck it on my coat. Had I voted in Polk City, Iowa, though, I would have had to pay for my sticker. And in Chicago, there were none.
Where are we going? More than we might expect, the stickers matter.
The Voting Paradox
Let’s start by thinking economically. If you want to increase voter participation, the logical thing to do is some cost-benefit analysis. It can be a hassle to get to the polls. There are lines, parking, it takes time and we all know that one vote alone makes no difference. And yet, displaying a voting paradox, we “pay” the cost and vote.
Hoping to decrease that cost and increase voter participation, Swiss officials decided to experiment with a mail-in ballot. The results were not quite what they expected. Explained in economic research, overall, there was no statistical difference between mail-in voting and turnout in cantons (districts) that retained their polls. There was, however, a seven percent voting decline in smaller mail-in cantons.
So, if mail-in is easier, why the decrease?
The connection between a voting booth and voting stickers is our community. With both, we like feeling that we are a part of a larger group that votes. So, when local officials start to complain about the expense, at $6 per 1000, we should tell them that the stickers are worth the money.
Our Bottom Line: Social Norms
Knowing a behavior is a social norm makes a difference. The members of the UK’s Nudge Team have been able to increase tax revenue through letters to delinquents that say everyone pays taxes—so you should, too. For using less electricity, researchers discovered it was more effective to say your neighbors are all savers than to remind them it is good to help the environment.
Similarly for voters, knowing that voting is a social norm means you will do it too.