The Cost of Convenience: An Experiment Showing E-Mail Outreach Decreases Voter Registration

Article excerpt

Abstract

Lower transaction costs have shifted voter registration activities online and away from traditional modes of outreach. Downloading forms may impose higher transaction costs than traditional outreach for some people and thereby decrease electoral participation. A randomized, controlled experiment tested this hypothesis by encouraging treatment participants via e-mail to use online voter registration tools. The treatment group was 0.3 percentage points less likely to be registered to vote after the election. A follow-up experiment sent reminders via text message to randomly selected people who had downloaded registration forms. The treatment increased rates of registration by 4 percentage points, suggesting that reminders can ameliorate many of the negative effects of directing people to downloadable online registration forms.

Keywords

voter registration, e-mail, online, mobilization, civic participation, experiment, procrastination

Despite the easing of voter registration laws since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, voter registration remains a bureaucratic hurdle to participating in elections. Traditionally in most states,1 to participate in an election a person must track down a voter registration form in a government office or come into contact with an organization conducting a voter registration drive. Once obtained, the form can typically be returned immediately to the same office or volunteer that provided the registration form. Voter registration forms that can be downloaded from the Internet sidestep the logistical problem of obtaining the form, but they can isolate the individual and place the responsibility of returning the form to county officials solely on the shoulders of the voter. In effect, online forms exchange a logistical cost (e.g., locating the form) for a psychic cost (e.g., remembering to turn in the form).

The use of online registration forms is becoming increasingly common. In 2008, Rock the Vote alone had 2.6 million individuals fill out and download registration forms (Rock the Vote 2009) and roughly 76 percent of the people downloading the forms were registered to vote on Election Day. Whether the logistical benefits of online registration outweigh the costs is an important question. This article reports the results of a field experiment where this shift in costs resulted in a decrease in voter registration rates.

Voter registration is a necessary step to electoral participation. Among people registered to vote, roughly 90 percent vote in presidential elections and 75 percent vote in midterm elections. Just over 60 percent of nonvoters in the United States are eligible citizens who are not registered to vote. Many of these unregistered persons would not vote if given the opportunity, but the bureaucratic burden surely prevents some people from voting (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 2004). As a result, Hanmer (2009) estimates that overall rates of voter turnout would be 3 to 8 percentage points higher were registration requirements abolished. This logic impels civic organizations, political campaigns, and government agencies to conduct registration drives to increase rates of registration.

Recently the efficacy of mobilization campaigns has been studied experimentally by political scientists (e.g., Gerber and Green 2000; Alvarez, Hopkins, and Sinclair 2010; Michelson, Bedolla, and McConnell 2009; Arceneaux and Kolodny 2009), but such work always focuses on voter turnout among those registered rather than examining how to register eligible citizens. Another interesting aspect of these studies of turnout is the general assumption that voter outreach can only mobilize and never demobilize.2 This unidirectional assumption may be unproblematic for turnout in elections where voters must vote by showing up at the polls, but may not apply to registration where an individual has multiple avenues of registration, each with their own costs. …