Want to increase voter turnout? Make voting fun!
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In an election year characterized by anger and division, more than 50 organizations around the country are dosing out a remedy, with community-driven celebratory events at polling locations that encourage neighbors to vote together. With music, snacks and art, these groups are making Election Day and early-vote opportunities a moment of joy, and points of pride of place. 

In 2012, my University of Houston-Downtown classmates and I created a similar tradition on campus, called Walk2Vote. We brought students together for a music and dance performance, and then we walked, as a group, to our early-voting location. Every year our events have grown and spread beyond our campus and into the greater Houston community. On Oct. 26, thousands of Houston residents joined together to celebrate casting our ballots, including high school seniors of voting age who joined in from all over the city.


These kinds of events are fun — they are filled with laughter and levity. But they are also effective weapons against apathy and powerful reinforcements of civic agency.

Research shows that community celebrations around voting work to improve participation. In 2005 and 2006 Elizabeth Addonizio, Donald Green, and James Glaser conducted a random control trial at polling locations around the nation. Treatment polling sites got a simple party with cotton candy, hot dogs and a DJ, while the control sites did not. The results of their statistical analysis on the precinct-level data were impressive: in precincts with low propensity voting, the researchers found a 3-percentage-point increase. The analysis suggests stronger effects in precincts where turnout rates are closer to 50 percent, which is typical of many precincts in presidential elections.


Why those results should be so strong remains more a matter of theory than fact. But there is some evidence that voting together may leverage social ties to lower psychological barriers to participation, especially for lower-frequency or new voters. “Where is my polling location?” “What will happen when I get there?” “Who is on the ballot?” Questions like these linger in people’s minds and can create mental road blocks — on top of logistical and structural ones — and the uncertainty can dissuade them from voting. 

Research also shows that when voters make a plan to vote, deciding when and how they will get to the polls and cast their ballot, they are more likely to do so. So creating a celebratory moment among friends, family and within communities also asks potential voters to “make a plan” in a more personal and appealing way. Perhaps knowing that you will be together with friends or family lowers the temperature of those uncertainties and makes it easier to decide to participate.

That is the theory behind the 50 community celebrations going on at voting locations around the nation. Walk2Vote has spread beyond Houston to locations across the country such as the Universities of Indiana and Iowa. Last week, in Chicago, a group called ChiWomenVote organized more than 400 women to share a potluck brunch followed by a walk to an early-voting location. The Knight Foundation has funded more than a dozen similar events around the nation, including some in Long Beach, Calif., where polling locations have been reimagined by a nonprofit urban design studio called City Fabrick to include pop art, photo booths and oversized Adirondack chairs. 

Holding a community celebration is a basic concept, but if the theory is correct, and leveraging social ties is effective in drawing more voters to the polls, events like these can have an outsize effect on democratic participation.


John Locke is a former president of the Student Government Association at the University of Houston-Downtown and is the founder of the national Walk2Vote program.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.