As scholars and pundits deplore the low rates of voter participation in the United States, particularly when compared to other industrialized democracies, Fordham political scientist Costas Panagopoulos, Ph.D., has discovered a deceptively simple way of getting more citizens to the polls:
Say thank you.
In three randomized field experiments conducted over the past year, Panagopoulos found that thanking voters for having participated in a prior election boosts the likelihood that they will vote in a subsequent election. His research showed that turnout rates were 2 to 3 percentage points higher for prior voters who had been thanked, compared to those who were not.
The three experiments took place in Staten Island for a February 2009 special election to fill a City Council vacancy; in New Jersey for the gubernatorial contest of November 2009; and in Georgia for primary elections in July 2010.
In each case, one group of voters, assigned through random sampling, received postcards that reminded them about the upcoming election and encouraged them to vote. Another group received postcards that also thanked them for voting in a previous election and urged them to vote in the upcoming one. The control group received no mailing.
Both mailings were strictly nonpartisan and timed so that the voters would receive them approximately three to seven days before the election.
On Staten Island, Panagopoulos found that voters receiving the so-called “gratitude postcard” voted at a 2.4 percentage rate higher than those who received no mailing and 2 percent more than those who received the so-called “reminder postcard.” The results were similar in New Jersey, where voters receiving the gratitude postcard voted at a 2.5 percent higher rate than those who received no postcard. In Georgia, voters receiving the gratitude postcard voted at a 2.4 to 3.1 percent higher rate than those who did not.
“It turns out that gratitude expression is an effective motivator of pro-social behavior like voting,” said Panagopoulos, an assistant professor of political science at Fordham, where he directs the master’s program in Elections and Campaign Management, and the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy.
“The effect may not be huge, but differences of this magnitude can be consequential, especially in close contests,” he added, noting that “turnout is especially critical in midterm elections, in which participation tends to lag 15 to 20 percentage points behind that of presidential elections.”
Preliminary numbers from the 2010 midterm elections confirm his assertion. Voter turnout was projected to be 42 percent, as opposed to almost 57 percent in the presidential election year of 2008.
Panagopoulos’s work has found its way into the popular media. A New York Times Magazine article published the Sunday before Election Day 2010 mentioned his research in New Jersey, and how it was adopted by poitical operatives across the country.
The study, “Thank You for Voting: Gratitude Expression and Voter Mobilization,” will be published in theJournal of Politics in 2011.