Want Young People to Vote? Make Them Sign a Pledge.

New research suggests a simple way to boost turnout among first-time voters.
by | August 15, 2018
I Voted sticker on a shirt.
(Shutterstock)

Since February’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., there has been a burst of youth activism in America, and early evidence suggests there has been an increase in teenagers and twentysomethings registering to vote.

But will they actually turn out on Election Day?

Democrats, who are aiming to inspire a blue wave that helps them take back some control of federal and state offices, hope so. But across the country, just 28 percent of young adults are "absolutely certain" they will vote, according to polling from PRRI and The Atlantic. One approach that might motivate the other 72 percent, according to a recent study, is asking them to sign a voting pledge.

Dartmouth College and the Environmental Defense Fund ran voter outreach experiments on college campuses in Colorado and Pennsylvania in 2016. During some shifts, canvassers asked students and other passersby to sign up for a reminder to vote. On other shifts, they asked them to sign a pledge that they would make it to the polls. Two weeks ahead of the election, the first group received mailers that said, "Remember to vote," while the second group's reminders said, "Remember your pledge to vote."

"Overall," the researchers concluded, "pledging to vote increased voter turnout by 3.7 points among all subjects and 5.6 points for people who had never voted before."

The lead researcher, Dartmouth professor Mia Costa, says these findings have practical implications for getting out the vote this year.

"If campaigns want to have young people voting, or at least first-time voters who haven’t voted in the past, going beyond the traditional GOTV mobilization tactics would be a good idea," she says, noting that it's a way to drive turnout without breaking the bank.

Democrats have nearly three months to energize young voters. Former First Lady Michelle Obama recently launched her nonpartisan "When We All Vote" campaign, with celebrities like Janelle Monae appealing directly to young people. Meanwhile, Democratic donor Tom Steyer is planning to register 100,000 college students through his group NextGen America.

But even though voter registration is up among young people, political observers are skeptical of the impact that will have in November. Given that young voters are historically unreliable, especially in midterm elections, nailing down some pledges couldn’t hurt.

Graham Vyse | Staff Writer