Nudging the Nonvoter – Using Behavioral Insights to Increase Voter Turnout

Common sense suggests that being able to participate in an election and to make your voice be heard in a democracy are sufficient reasons to get people to cast their vote. No matter what background, gender or ethnicity you have, the mere act of voting, untied to whom you actually vote for, should be beneficial for you. If you vote, your social group becomes more relevant to the politicians who design their campaigns in order to get your vote. Imagine men, for whatever reason, didn’t vote at all. Political camps would then cater to women in order to get their vote as they are the group that matters to win the election. Tragically, this logic doesn’t seem to convince a large portion of people who’d rather squander their right to vote.

Low voter turnout is an issue that can hardly be overstated. While some states obtain a seemingly satisfactory voter participation, most states struggle to reach an amount of voters that can sufficiently represent the will of the population as a whole. In the United States presidential election of 2016 roughly 58% of the eligible population cast their vote. While this figure might already seem appalling to you it helps to look at it from another perspective. Approximately 227 million people in the USA are entitled to vote. A total of 62,984,825 people voted for the GOP candidate Donald Trump. This amount of votes, despite being lower than that of his opponent Hillary Clinton, sufficed to get him elected as the 45th President of the United States.  In turn, this connotes that only roughly 26.4% of the American people with the right to vote actually voted for their new president. The biggest group in this election were once again the nonvoters.

The issue of low voter turnout isn’t exclusive to the American people. For example, in their most recent elections, Japan’s 52.7%, Germany’s 70.8% and the UK’s 71.9% voter participation are all results that can be improved upon. On top of that, the trend of voter participation is sloping downwards in most democracies. Each period, millions are spent on every side of the political spectrum to persuade people to vote for their candidate or party. Moreover there are many projects and voices that simply intend to increase general participation in the process. What causes the low voter turnout? And, more interestingly, what can be done to augment it? In this paper I will inquire about how governments and NGOs try to increase it, how well they fare and what can be improved to make an increased voter turnout stick. I will rely on insights of recent research in behavioral economics and try to relate them to the issue of low participation in elections. Thus, the question central to this paper is: How can we use insights from behavioral economics to increase voter turnout?

As a disclaimer, there is no infallible way to get people to vote. But there are certainly some instruments that work more efficiently than others. Imagine being hesitant to vote and reacting to some of the different measures I will assess in the upcoming paper. First off, how would it influence you to get a phone call before the election, asking you about your intention to vote? The same caller could also just provide some information on the election in general (see Gerber and Green 2001). Or he could ask you to make a commitment to vote (see Imai et al. 2008). Do you reckon TV commercials, radio or messages in TV shows can make a difference (see Krasno and Green 2008)? Do you think they could make you more eager to vote? If you want to read how others in already conducted experiments reacted and also want to get an idea of how challenging it really is to increase voter turnout significantly, feel free to write me an e-mail after July 16th.



Gerber, A. and Green, D. (2001). Do Phone Calls Increase Voter Turnout?. Public Opinion Quarterly, 65(1), pp.75-85.

Imai, K., Goldstein, D., Göritz, A. and Gollwitzer, P. (2008). Nudging Turnout: Mere Measurement and Implementation Planning of Intentions to Vote. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Krasno, J. and Green, D. (2008). Do Televised Presidential Ads Increase Voter Turnout? Evidence from a Natural Experiment. The Journal of Politics, 70(1), pp.245-261.

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