Priming Democracy


Unlike Andrew Coyne (and a bazillion others) I’m increasingly hesitant to get all fussed about declining voter turnout. In the end, I’m not really sure what it means, how important it is, and what — if anything — we should do about it. That isn’t to say that voting does not matter, or that there is not some sort of connection between democratic legitimacy and voter turnout — just that it’s complicated, and it is not just a Canadian problem.

But let’s say we do care about voter turnout, and let’s say it is reaching worrisomely low levels here in the GWN. What can we do about it? I’m reluctant to join in the fun of constructing facile syllogisms involving FPP voting systems and the end of democracy, or negative campaigning and the end of democracy, or the marketing/branding of politics and the end of democracy, and so on.

One thing I do believe, though, is that voting is a highly social phenomenon, a function as much of social pressures and expectations as it is a rational attempt at choosing the country’s political direction. That is why I was actually appalled when Elections Canada stopped enumerating voters in 1997 — I always felt that the very act of sending citizens door-to-door informing their fellow citizens about the upcoming election played a strongly normative role in “priming” people to vote. I don’t have any data on this, but the turnout figures for almost every election since then have hit successive historical lows (see the chart over at the always-accurately-titled Andrew Coyne’s Blog). And then there’s this passage from a dialogue with Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and others: via MR

KAHNEMAN: …there are those effects that are small at the margin that can change election results.

You call and ask people ahead of time, “Will you vote?”. That’s all. “Do you intend to vote?”. That increases voting participation substantially, and you can measure it. It’s a completely trivial manipulation, but saying ‘Yes’ to a stranger, “I will vote” …

MYHRVOLD: But to Elon’s point, suppose you had the choice of calling up and saying, “Are you going to vote?”, so you prime them to vote, versus exhorting them to vote.

KAHNEMAN: The prime could very well work better than the exhortation because exhortation is going to induce resistance, whereas the prime‚ the mild embarrassment causes you to make what feels like a commitment, and the commitment, if it’s sufficiently precise, is going to have an effect on behavior.

THALER: If you ask them when they’re going to vote, and how they’re going to get there, that increases voting.

KAHNEMAN: And where.


UPDATE: And so just to finish the thought: If we’re *that* concerned about voter turnout, why doesn’t someone start a campaign to bring back door-to-door enumeration, where part of the process involves asking people if they plan to vote, where, when, and so on. Sure, it adds another $30 million or so to the cost of an election, but what’s thirty million if the alternative is the decline and fall of Canadian democracy? Might it not be worth trying, as an experiment?

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