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What Really Motivates Someone To Vote?

Tom Wolf


Nearly 250 million Americans have the right to vote, but many don't exercise it.

University of Pittsburgh Professor Victoria Shineman said there are plenty of reasons for that.

"Voter registration is one of the biggest barriers, especially for initial participation," she said. "A lot of states have deadlines well before the actual election. A lot of people miss that deadline. Also things if you move, if you change your address, remembering to update your address."

Some states are plagued with habitually long voting lines or strict voter I.D. laws. In Pennsylvania, voters need a qualifying reason to use the vote-by-mail system. 

So why do some folks take time to cast a ballot? Well, democracy. People want to have an effect on the outcome of the election.

But Shineman said the argument, "That your vote will make a difference is sort of paradoxical, because the more people who believe it, the less true it can become."

If people are being rational about affecting the outcome, they’d vote in elections where their vote accounts for the largest slice of the influence pie.

"We’d see high turnout in local elections, but it’s not what we see," Shineman said. "It’s the opposite.”

On average, 50 to 60 percent of registered voters participate in presidential elections. That number falls into the 40s for primaries, and sometimes in the single digits for local elections like school boards and aldermen.

People respond to the hype of big campaigns, Shineman said, but there’s one thing that can improve those odds across the board – a powerful invisible force that motivates a lot of human behavior – social pressure.

"Giving people either the promise of esteem or threat of shame for not voting has been found to increase turnout more than reducing costs or talking about the candidates," Shineman said.

Shineman said that’s because voting is generally seen as a positive social activity, and said that’s why things like the "I Voted" sticker matters. It not only reminds other people to vote, but gives voters personal recognition throughout the day.

So, does Allegheny County hand them out?

"We do not and never have," said Mark Wolosik of the Allegheny County Elections Division.

With 1,319 precincts, it’d certainly take some effort to get a sticker to every voter. But local voters do get something for voting – a receipt.

"A portion of that receipt is placed on an envelope on the side of the machine, and that is a record of every voter who voted on that particular voting machine," said Wolosik. "The other portion is perforated, and is handed back to the voter, and it contains their voter number, and date of the election they voted on.”

Wolosik said that’s much better than a generic sticker.

"That gives you your own evidence that you voted on election day, customized to you," he said. "I’ve heard many voters put them in an envelope and actually keep them as their own voter history since the time they have voted."

But Shineman said the social element is real, like the Facebook experiment a few years ago that let voters proclaim they voted alongside friends who did the same. Shineman said that encourages actual voter turnout.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Pedro Cortés said a similar Facebook campaign yielded the same kind of results ahead of Pennsylvania's primary registration deadline. About 200,000 people filed their paperwork in the five weeks leading up to the March 28 deadline, and almost one-quarter of those filed the day Facebook reminded users their registration deadline was fast approaching.

"People vote for a lot of reasons, not to say it's not because of politics, but there’s also that warm glow and good feeling," Shineman said. "And part of that good feeling is other people knowing that you voted and being able to display that."

Intab, the company that sells what it calls the original "I Voted" sticker, claims to have customers in all 50 states. They retail for about $7 per 1,000 stickers.

State records show about 8.2 million registered voters live in Pennsylvania, but Cortés said analysts with the Pew Research Center and others have estimated more like 10 million people actually qualify.

Wolosik said, even just for Allegheny County, that would be too great a cost, but Shineman insists the sticker is a good bang for the jurisdictional buck.

Intab reports sticker sales continue to climb.