The Best Way To Increase Voter Turnout

“Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”

-Alexis de Tocqueville

Why don’t more Americans vote? In the last midterm election, only 36.4 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, the lowest turnout since 1942.

To understand the causes of low turnout, the Census Bureau regularly asks citizens why they chose not to exercise their constitutional right. The number one reason is always the same: “too busy.” (That was the reason given by 28 percent of non-voters in 2014.) The second most popular excuse is “not interested,” followed by a series of other obstacles, such as forgetting about the election or not liking any of the candidates.

What’s telling about this survey is that the reasons for not voting are almost entirely self-created. They are psychological, not institutional. (Only 2 percent of non-voters blame “registration problems.”) It’s not that people can’t vote – it’s that they don’t want to. They are unwilling to make time, even if it only takes a few minutes.

Alas, most interventions designed to mobilize these non-voters – to help them deal with their harried schedule and political apathy - are not very effective. One recent paper, for instance, reviewed evidence from more than 200 get-out-the-vote (GOTV) projects to show that, on average, door-to-door canvassing increased turnout by 1 percentage point, direct mail increased turnout by 0.7 percentage points, and phone calls increased turnout by 0.4 percentage points.* Television advertising, meanwhile, appears to have little to no effect. (Nevertheless, it’s estimated that 2016 political campaigns will spend more than $4.4 billion on broadcast commercials.)

However, a new working paper, by John Holbein of Duke University, proposes a very different approach to increase voter turnout. While most get-out-the-vote operations are fixated on the next election, trying to churn out partisans in the same Ohio/Florida/Nevada zip codes, Holbein’s proposal focuses on children, not adults. It also comes with potentially huge side benefits.

In his paper, “Marshmallows and Votes?” Holbein looks at the impact of the Fast Track Intervention, one of the first large scale programs designed to improve children’s non-cognitive skills, such as self-control, emotional awareness and grit. (“Non-cognitive” remains a controversial description, since it implies that these skills don’t require high-level thinking. They do.) Fast Track worked. Follow-up surveys with hundreds of students enrolled in the program showed that, relative to a control group, those given an education in non-cognitive skills were less aggressive at school, better at identifying their emotions and more willing to work through difficult problems. As teenagers, those in the treatment group “manifested reduced conduct problems in the home, school, and community, with decreases in involvement with deviant peers, hyperactivity, delinquent behavior, and conduct disorders.” As adults, they had lower conviction rates for violent and drug-related crimes.

Holbein wanted to expand on this analysis by looking at voter behavior when the Fast Track subjects were in their mid to late twenties. After matching people to their voter files, he found a clear difference in political participation rates. According to Holbein’s data, “individuals exposed to Fast Track turned out to vote in at least one of the federal elections held during 2004-2012 at a rate 11.1 percentage points higher than the control group.” That represents a 40 percent increase over baseline levels. Take that, television ads.

There are two important takeaways. The first is that a childhood intervention designed to improve non-cognitive skills can have “large and long-lasting impacts on political behavior in adulthood.” In his paper, Holbein emphasis the boost provided by self-regulation, noting that the ability to "persevere, delay gratification, see others' perspectives, and properly target emotion and behavior" can help people overcome the costs of participating in an election, whether it's waiting in a line at a polling place or not getting turned off by negative ads.  And since the health of a democracy depends on the involvement of its citizens – we must learn how to use our freedom, as Tocqueville put it – it seems clear that attempts to improve political participation should begin as early as possible, and not just with lectures about civics.

The second lesson involves the downstream benefits of an education in non-cognitive skills. We’ve been so focused for so long on the power of intelligence that we’ve largely neglected to teach children about self-control and emotional awareness. (That’s supposed to be the job of parents, right?) However, an impressive body of research over the last decade or so has made it clear that non-cognitive skills are extremely important. In a recent review paper, the Nobel Laureate James Heckman and the economist Tim Kautz summarize the evidence: “The larger message of this paper is that soft skills [e.g, non-cognitive skills] predict success in life, that they causally produce that success, and that programs that enhance soft skills have an important place in an effective portfolio of public policies.”

Democracies are not self-sustaining – they have to invest in their continued existence, which means developing citizens willing to cast a ballot. In Making Democracy Work, Robert Putnam and colleagues analyzed the regional governments of Italy. On paper, all of these governments looked identical, having been created as part of the same national reform. However, Putnam found that their effectiveness varied widely, largely as a result of differing levels of civic engagement among their citizens. When people were more engaged with their community – when they voted in elections, read newspapers, etc. – they had governments that were more responsive and successful. According to Putnam, civic engagement is not a by-product of good governance. It’s a precondition for it.

This new paper suggests that the road to a better democracy begins in the classroom. By teaching young students basic non-cognitive skills – something we should be doing anyway – we might also improve the long-term effectiveness of our government.

Holbein, John. "Marshmallows and Votes? Childhood Non-Cognitive Skill Development and Adult Political Participation." Working Paper.

*There is evidence, however, that modern campaigns have become more effective at turning out the vote, largely because their ground games can now target supporters with far higher levels of precision. According to a recent paper by Ryan Enos and Anthony Fowler, the Romney and Obama campaigns were able to increase voter participation in the 2012 election by 7-8 percentage points in “highly targeted” areas. Unfortunately, these additional supporters were also quite expensive, as Enos and Fowler conclude that “the average cost of generating a single vote is about 87 dollars."