CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

Make Voting Fun?

April 18th, 2011
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Several scholars asked this question in 2005 and 2006 as they experimented with election-day festivals as a tool to increase voter turnout.[1] Festivals may seem a foreign concept to some who have only experienced rather sedate election days. But the voting experience used to be far more social (for men, at least) than it is today. Elizabeth Addonizio, Donald Green and James Glaser write, “Our polling places have been drained of their celebratory elements, and the 85% rates of voter turnout that once accompanied them have disappeared from our collective consciousness.” As our friends at HeadCount point out, young people in Canada are planning to change election day to make it, among other things, a lot more social.

Many national and local partners, including CIRCLE’s ongoing partner the League of Young Voters, conducted 14 randomized experiments with non-partisan election-day festivals. Five of these experiments focused on youth and/or students. These events “offered food, fun, and music but lacked the free-wheeling attributes of their nineteenth-century counterparts. And unlike the social activities surrounding elections in the nineteenth century, which of course were men-only affairs, our parties were meant for general audiences, including children.”

Part of the theory behind the festivals was the notion that personalized outreach makes a difference, so if a person attended the festival but had not or did not plan to vote, they might talk to those there who would encourage them to do so. The experiment also included press outreach and two rounds of automated phone calls (including one on election day). The authors specifically point out that they do not think the impact found in these experiments is due the phone calls because robo-calls have not been found to be particularly effective.

The authors find that “a festival held in a context where the expected base rate of voting is 50% would produce a turnout rate of 56.5%—a 6.5 percentage-point increase. In a low-turnout (10%) context [we find] a treatment effect of 2.6 percentage points…festivals generate votes at an average rate of $28 per vote.”

Since this experiment not much has been published to add to these findings. One exception is experiments related to Saints’ Day festivals in Mexico, which occurred at various times around election day.[2] The researchers hypothesized that the festivals would increase social capital in the community and thus increase voter turnout. However, turnout decreased.

Recent CIRCLE research with non-college youth (forthcoming) indicates that festivals and other social events might be tactic worth trying in low-income communities. As Addonizio, Green and Glaser suggest, much more can be learned about the most effective components.

-Abby Kiesa

[1] Addonizio, Elizabeth, Green, Donald and Glaser, James. Putting the Party Back into Politics: An Experiment Testing Whether Election Day Festivals Increase Voter Turnout. PS: Political Science & Politics (2007), 40: 721-727.

[2] Atkinson, M.D. and Fowler, A. The Effect of Social Capital on Voter Turnout: Evidence from Saint’s Day Fiestas in Mexico. Accessed online at on April 18, 2011.

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