Let's publicly shame people who don't vote

As modern civic activists have tried to increase turnout, their focus has been on reducing the hassle of participation. The most-successful reforms of the past decade, however—early in-person voting, “no excuse” absentee ballots, elections entirely by mail—appear not to have lured new people to the polls so much as merely made it more convenient for regular voters to cast their ballots.

What actually works is mimicking some part of the 19th century’s surveillance culture. The most effective tool for turning nonvoters into voters—10 times better than the typical piece of preelection mail, according to a 2006 Michigan experiment—is a threat to send neighbors evidence of one’s apathy. Other experiments have found gentler approaches that serve a similar function: merely reminding citizens that whether they cast a ballot is a matter of public record, or promising to print the names of those who do in a postelection newspaper ad, can boost turnout too. By introducing shame into the calculus of citizenship, the researchers behind these tests increased the psychological cost of not voting. In so doing, they restored the sense—sadly lost for a century—that voting ought to be not a personal act but a social one.

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