March 13, 2008: Social Pressure and Voter Turnout
APSA Press Release
For Immediate Release
Conducted by political scientists Alan S. Gerber (
The authors found that when it comes to voting, people are more likely to conform to powerful social norms—like viewing of voting as a civic duty—if they expect that their behavior will be made public. For example, after households were shown their own voting record, their turnout rose to 34.5%, a 4.5% increase over the control group’s voting rate of 29.7%. “Even more dramatic is the effect of showing households their own voter record and the voting records of their neighbors,” note the authors. Voter turnout among households exposed to this method was 37.8%, an increase of 8.1% over the control group.
This remarkable increase in turnout, observe the authors, “exceeds the effect of live phone calls and rivals the effect of face-to face contact with canvassers conducting get-out-the vote campaigns.” By comparison, policy interventions such as Election Day registration or vote-by-mail, which are widely debated today and seek to increase turnout by lowering the costs of voting, are thought to have effects of 3% or less. Moreover, in terms of sheer cost efficiency, mailings that exert social pressure cost between $1.93-$3.24 per vote, far outperforming the roughly $20 per vote for door-to-door canvassing or $35 per vote for phone banks.
In this heated campaign season, this study provides new and compelling insights into the phenomenon of voter mobilization and to what extent social pressure can cause increases in voter turnout. Given their impact, direct mail campaigns employing aspects of social pressure are likely to be an inevitable development in the campaign craft of American politics.
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