How voting becomes a habit
In politics, as in life, showing up matters. This will certainly be true in next year’s presidential election, when get-out-the-vote efforts will undoubtedly shape the outcome.
But what also will affect turnout, our research has found, is whether you have voted in past elections.
Most of us think voting is rational. You might decide to vote because it’s your civic duty or to express your views. Or you might be dissuaded by the time and energy costs of voting.
According to political science models, voters go to the polls when they are motivated, perhaps because they are concerned about the election outcome, feel they can make a difference, identify with a party or have been contacted by a candidate. Otherwise, they stay home.
But by voting, you set in motion other, less calculated influences on future turnout. Consider habit. When you think of habits, you probably think of nail biting, tooth brushing and coffee drinking. It’s not so obvious that voting can be habitual.
Yet, in one of the first studies testing whether voting could be a habit, we worked with Jacob Montgomery at Washington University in St. Louis to analyze eight national elections between 1958 and 1994.
We weren’t looking at habits to see if they influenced how people voted, simply whether they voted at all. The election data tallied whether citizens had voted in a particular election (validated votes), their feelings about the election and how often they had voted in the past.
What we found was surprising. Only some people voted when they cared about an election. The political science models (and our intuitions) did not hold for citizens who had voted consistently even a few times in the past. These people continued to vote regardless of particulars of the election. It seemed like, through their initial voting, they were forming habits that kept them automatically going to the polls. The more people had voted in the past, the more they continued to do so out of habit, as if they didn’t have to think much about what they were doing.
But there is more to the study. It may seem obvious at first, but the implications were substantial: When people moved, they disrupted the repetition of their voting habits. After a move, even habitual voters acted in the way most of us imagine everyone does: They voted only if they were highly motivated.
Moving removed the cues that drive habits and apparently forced voters to make decisions about what to do. When you move, you have to reregister to vote, find your new polling place or maybe learn to bring your driver’s license. You can no longer automatically repeat what you have done in the past.
We develop habits through repetition, but we repeat them depending on the contexts we are in. If the context remains stable and you follow the same route to vote at the same polling place, then you can repeat past actions automatically. Change the location, and you have to think. Even if you have been a regular, habitual voter, you might decide to skip this year if you stopped to think about it.
Our decisions not to vote also have consequences beyond the present election. If it rains during an election, you may decide to stay home. Just a millimeter of rain dropped voting by a little, .05 percent, in election analyses from 1952-2012.
Even this minimal voting hiatus has consequences. When people stayed home due to rain one year, they were less likely to vote in the next election. By passing up the chance to cast a ballot, voters missed the opportunity to initiate new voting habits or strengthen existing ones.
Given that turnout is influenced by habit, voter suppression has lasting effects beyond the immediate consequences. Communities of color are increasingly facing gerrymandered districts, new voter-ID laws, limited or changed polling places, and excessive lines.
Since 2010, 23 states have more restrictive voting laws, and these include six of the 10 states with the highest proportions of black voters. Even if we successfully remove these barriers to democratic participation today, the effects of voter disenfranchisement they have created will be felt into the future.
By recognizing these downstream effects, we can understand the importance of programs to get out the vote. In research that randomly assigned people to participate in a Get Out the Vote Program, voting increased not just in that immediate election, but in subsequent elections as well.
Wendy Wood is a provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California is author of the upcoming book, “Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick.” John Aldrich is Pfizer Pratt University professor of political science at Duke University, is co-author of “Change and Continuity in the 2016 and 2018 Elections.”
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