Will U Vote? Using Text Messages to Mobilize Voters


Elections Todd Rogers, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy SchoolPaper Title Text Messages as Mobilization Tools: The Conditional Effect of Habitual Voting and Election Salience Coauthors Neil Malhotra, University of Pennsylvania; Melissa Michelson, Menlo College; Ali Adam Valenzuela, Princeton University

When does a voter make the decision to vote, and what can influence that voter? That is the question at the heart of new research that looks at whether something as simple as a text message could help to move a citizen to the polls.

The theory of voter mobilization was long built on the belief that voting is a social occasion, and that therefore social contact is necessary to boslter the decision to participate and the perceived benefits of doing so. What became known as social occasion theory suggested that that was why social strategies such as in-person contact and volunteer telephone calls were much more effective than impersonal strategies such as direct and electronic mail.

But recent research has pointed the field toward another idea: that the costs and benefits of voting are weighed when a person registers, and once that step has been taken, a person need only be reminded to vote. Noticeable reminder theory, as this new approach is called, turns on the noticeability, not the personalization, of the message reminding the voter.

Todd Rogers, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, and a group of fellow researchers decided to test this theory further. The initial tests from which the theory developed were conducted with voters who had already made a commitment of sorts to vote (they had been directly contacted by organizations registering voters or had voluntarily opted in). Rogers’s research removed all auxiliary contact, using what the researches called “cold texts.”

The researchers conducted experiments involing a total of 42,516 voters over two elections in California’s San Mateo County: a low turnout election in November 2009 and a relatively higher turnout election in June 2010. Voters who had provided cell phone numbers with their state registration information were identified and divided into a control group and a test group.

For both elections, text messages were sent on the Monday before Election Day. They read: “A friendly reminder that tomorrow is Election Day. Democracy depends on citizens like you — so please vote!” The researchers found that the text messages increased turnout by 3 percent in the 2009 election and 2 percent in the 2010 election. Despite the absence prior social contact, the results were consistent with the previous research on the value of the texts.

By conducting experiments in two separate elections, one that included mostly uncontested local issues and one following a fiercely fought primary campaign for governor, the researchers were able to see if the competitive context of an election affected the impact of the text messages. They found that text messaging had an especially large effect on habitual voters in the noncompetitive election and on casual voters in the competitive election.

The absence of an effect on casual voters in the noncompetitive election suggests that social contact could still be very important in reaching a certain type of voter. Even as text messaging has become a mainstream form of communication, especially among the young, attempts to understand its impact on voters are just beginning.

“Noticeable Reminder Theory and Social Occasion Theory are, of course, not mutually exclusive theories, and it would be instructive to explore the conditions under which each mechanism operates,” the researchers write. In addition, future research could explore the effects of various message types and content. “sms/mms technology provides numerous opportunities to provide more complex treatments (e.g., graphics and multimedia),” the authors write. “For instance, one could imagine showing voters their polling place with a Google map, thereby further reducing the transaction costs involved in voting. Via further experimentation, scholars can gain a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying political participation.”

— by Robert O'Neill

The costs and benefits of voting are
weighed when a person registers, and
once that step has been taken, a person
need only be reminded to vote.

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