Why People Don’t Vote--and How a Good Ground Game Helps

 
 
Recent research by Vincent Pons shows that campaigners knocking on the doors of potential voters not only improves overall turnout but helps individual candidates win more of those votes.
 
 
by Michael Blanding

Democracy has a dirty little secret.

Despite the fever pitch over presidential primaries this year, the truth is there are few people actually voting. Before the most recent round of voting, only some 11 percent of eligible Democrats voted in the primaries, and the record numbers of Republicans still only translates to about 17 percent of those eligible. Even the general elections of 2008 and 2012 only saw about half of eligible voters casting a ballot.

“Less than half of eligible citizens are voting in a growing number of elections, and that is a cause for concern”

Nor is voter apathy strictly an American phenomenon. “Voter turnout has been declining in many Western democracies over the past decades,” says Vincent Pons, assistant professor at Harvard Business School in the Business, Government, and the International Economy Unit. “Less than half of eligible citizens are voting in a growing number of elections, and that is a cause for concern.”

Fewer voters means less people having a stake in what government does, eroding trust of the governed—particularly by younger, poorer, and less educated citizens, who tend to stay home from the polls in larger numbers. “Not only is turnout low, but it is also unequal,” says Pons. “Many citizens are disengaging in participation in society. That may decrease the legitimacy of elected governments overall.”

In four recent studies conducted in Italy and France, Pons and coauthors investigate the phenomenon of why people aren’t voting—and what can be done to reverse that trend. In doing so, they take aim at some misconceptions about what keeps voters home, and show the surprising effectiveness of door-to-door canvassing at getting more people to the polls.

Voting is not easy

In the first study, Voter Registration Costs and Disenfranchisement: Experimental Evidence from France, conducted with French professors Céline Braconnier and Jean-Yves Dormagen, the researchers examined the difficulties citizens had in registering to vote in the French presidential election of 2012.

Door-to-door canvassing is an effective method of political
persuasion, according to recent research. Source: ebstock

“There is the cost of taking the time to register, walking to the town hall, gathering the paperwork…” says Pons. While those might not seem like difficult tasks in themselves, they don’t provide any immediate gratification, so they are easy to put off until it is too late.

The researchers recruited volunteers to perform some 20,000 direct door-to-door visits to random households. They found that just providing information on how to register wound up increasing registration rates from 18 to 21 percent. That percentage increased even higher, to 29 percent, when citizens were allowed to register at home and received two volunteer visits. Even more impressively, 93 percent of the people that registered eventually voted in at least one election in 2012—directly contradicting the supposition that unregistered voters aren’t voting because they aren’t interested.

“It’s simply that it was too costly for them to do so,” says Pons.

Lowering the barriers even slightly had a dramatic impact on voter turnout and engagement. What’s more, a post-election survey administered by the researchers found that new registrants were significantly better informed politically and had more political discussions with their neighbors during the electoral campaign, making them more civically engaged overall.

Increasing the immigrant vote

In the second study Pons performed, particularly strong results were found for parts of the electorate that are traditionally disenfranchised. For this study, Increasing the Electoral Participation of Immigrants: Experimental Evidence from France, co-written with Guillaume Liegey, the researchers canvassed eight cities in the suburbs of Paris heavily populated by recent immigrants, particularly from Sub-Saharan Africa and Maghreb.

“Often times you see these immigrants are not always completely integrated into society,” says Pons. “Objectively, they have lower salaries and lower education, but more subjectively, when you ask them about their sense of national belonging, they don’t say that they feel 100 percent French.”

“We thought that perhaps a way to fix this [distrust] is to have politicians speak directly to voters”

Hypothesizing that this lack of personal investment in the country depressed their tendency to vote on issues, the researchers recruited activists with the Socialist Party to knock on doors in advance of the 2010 regional elections. The activists gave citizens information about the candidates and the elections—but, importantly, did not specifically emphasize immigration, education, or other issues that might be of particular interest to immigrant groups.

“You could make the argument that if you want to motivate immigrants you need a more targeted campaign—that’s often the way it’s done in the United States for example with Latinos, but in France it’s not possible to do this,” explains Pons. “It would reflect badly on a candidate to say, ‘I am doing a campaign to target Arab people.’” Even the concept of a systematic large scale, door-to-door, get-out-the-vote campaign is new in France.

When the researchers looked at the results, however, they found a significant effect on voter turnout for immigrant households—increasing 3.4 percentage points in the first round of voting, and 2.8 percentage points in the second. The visits, by contrast, had no effect on non-immigrant households.

“The finding is unexpected and very surprising,” says Pons, who surmises that the results partly may have come just from providing some information, since immigrants tend to be less informed overall than native-born citizens.

Another explanation, however, is that the visits simply sent a message that these voters’ opinions mattered. “They sent a very different signal than the interactions immigrants have with most rooted French,” says Pons. “Instead of being seen as second-class citizens, the immigrants saw that these visitors fully considered them participants and counted on their votes.”

Do candidates encourage turnout?

One visitor who, it turns out, does not help increase election turnout is the candidate himself.

In a third study, Do Interactions With Candidates Increase Voter Participation? Experimental Evidence from Italy, Pons and MIT PhD candidate Enrico Cantoni tested the impact of door-to-door candidate visits during 2014 municipal elections in Italy. “The motivation for the project,” Pons says, “is that in many surveys we find that not only are voters participating less, but also that they are distrustful of politicians. We thought that perhaps a way to fix this is to have politicians speak directly to voters.”

In some 26,000 house visits, households were randomly assigned to be visited by a city council candidate or a student canvasser from the candidate’s party. While the canvasser visits increased voter participation by 1.8 percentage points, the candidate visits had no effect. That effect was the opposite of what Pons and Cantoni anticipated.

“We were expecting the students to have some effect, and a larger effect from the candidates,” he says. When they looked more closely at the data, they realized that candidates were spending more time in areas characterized by high past turnout. The researchers surmise that the politicians were wasting time and effort trying unsuccessfully to convince voters who didn’t support them, rather than motivating those who already did support them to go out and vote.

The knock-on-door effect

But just because the candidates couldn’t change minds doesn’t mean minds can’t be changed.

That’s the result from Pons’ final study, Will a Five-Minute Discussion Change Your Mind: A Countrywide Experiment on Voter Choice in France. For this project, Pons worked directly with the campaign of French president-to-be Francois Hollande during the 2012 elections.

In an effort originally designed to increase voter turnout among left-wing supporters, Pons worked with 80,000 volunteers of Hollande’s Socialist Party to knock on some 5 million doors. Since it wouldn’t be possible to track results on an individual level, Pons made a strategic decision to have volunteers target entire precincts while leaving others completely uncovered—allowing him not only to gauge voter turnout, but also to track the impact on voter preferences.

When he looked at the numbers after Hollande’s victory, he was surprised to find that there was no effect on turnout: the percentage of voters participating was not larger in precincts covered by the campaign. However, the percentage voting for Hollande did increase. In fact, door-to-door canvassing increased Hollande’s lead over rival conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy by 1.9 points in the first round and 2 points in the second, accounting for a fifth of his final margin of victory.

“A likely interpretation is we persuaded active voters who were going to vote for central or right candidates to vote for Hollande,” says Pons. That’s significant. While other research has shown an effect of canvassing on voter turnout, this is the first study to show that it can influence candidate preference.

“For a long time, it seemed it could be easier to motivate than persuade,” says Pons. “Here we have evidence that persuasion is also possible.”

Takeaways for political parties

Taken together, Pons’ studies point to just how important a personal touch can be in getting voters to the polls, and even in convincing them to vote for a particular candidate.

“Probably a takeaway from my research is that the political parties should do a lot of get-out-the-vote and voter registration campaigns, and they can start doing these quite early,” says Pons. In the case of his work in France, the researchers found impact on voter registration drives done in October and November on elections occurring in April.

“I suspect both Republicans and Democrats could benefit from this,” he says, “in fact, it’s hard to say who would benefit more.”

One thing is clear: the biggest beneficiary would be democracy itself.

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About the Author

Michael Blanding is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts

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