Politics and Work: Participation - Voting, 401(k)s and Wellness

by Matthew Stollak on Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Yesterday's post dealt with the issue of why we vote on Tuesday and its impact on the workplace.

Another challenge is simple voter participation - how do we increase the number of people turning out to the polls?  Civic duty has long been perceived as the reason most people vote.  Yet, a significant portion of individuals choose to ignore this duty; an estimated 50 million Americans won't vote today.  Only 56.8 percent of the voting age population cast a ballot in 2008.

Beyond changing the date, what might increase that participation?  In "Get Out the Vote," Donald Green and Alan Gerber found that automated calls only generate one vote per 900 calls (yet, the constant ringing at my home this past week suggests campaigns haven't learned this lesson).  Campaign flyers, they suggest, are not much more effective than doing nothing.  E-mails are useless.

If those don't work...what does?  


In "Social Pressure and Voter Turnout:Evidence from a Large Scale Experiment," Gerber, Green, and Christopher Larimer sent out four different pieces of campaign mail to nearly 300,000 people urging them to vote in the 2006 Michigan primary. All four treatments carried a similar message - "DO YOUR CIVIC DUTY  - VOTE," but differed as follows:

  • "Civic Duty" - Households receiving this type of mailing were told, “Remember your rights and responsibilities as a citizen. Remember to vote.”
  • "Hawthorne Effect" - Households receiving this mailing were told “YOU ARE BEING STUDIED!” and informed that their voting behavior would be examined by means of public records.
  • "Self" - The “Self” mailing exerts more social pressure by informing recipients that who votes is public information and listing the recent voting record of each registered voter in the household. The word “Voted” appears by names of registered voters in the household who actually voted in the 2004 primary election and the 2004 general election, and a blank space appears if they did not vote.
  • "Neighbors" - The fourth mailing ratchets up the social pressure even further by listing not only the household’s voting records but also the voting records of those living nearby. Like the “Self” mailing, the Neighbors” mailing informed the recipient that “we intend to mail an updated chart” after the primary,showing whether members of the household voted in the primary and who among their neighbors had actually voted in the primary.
The result?  The "Neighbors" mailing increased turnout by as much as 8 points.

If social pressure can impact voting that significantly, could it also be applied to 401(k) participation or wellness programs?

For example, in "The Power of Suggestion: Inertia and 401(k) Participation and Savings Behavior," Madrian and Shea (2001) found that when employees were give a choice to opt-into their 401(k) program, participation rates were 20% after three months of employment, which increased to 65% by the end of year three of employment.  However, when employees were automatically enrolled, and had to make an effort to opt out, participation was 90% immediately and increased to more than 98% within 36 months. 

As with voting, pressure was placed, this time by the employer, to participate.

So, with the election being held today...get out and vote....somebody's watching you:

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