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Voting May Be Habit-Forming: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment

July 2003

Alan S. Gerber, Donald P. Green, Ron Shachar


This report is arguing that voting is habit forming, which creates a dynamic piece to understanding political participation that has been previously static. Keeping all other attributes constant of an individual and their environment, showing up at the polls will increase a person’s likelihood of returning. Before simply accepting habit as a fact, non-experimental results had to be combined with experimental data. 25,000 subjects were randomly assigned conditions where they were urged to vote in different ways, direct mail or face-to-face canvassing, and voting behaviors were tracked in the 1998 and 1999 November elections. Both tactics had significant effects on turnout. In the end, this report found that voting in the prior 1998 election increased probability by 46.7 percentage points for the next. The more you participate, the more you feel you are doing something meaningful, and the more likely you are to attend the polls. The article points out four hypotheses on the explanations for persistence in voting behavior. The easiest to test is the first hypothesis. This is that the political environment itself reinforces a person’s political participation level. The second is voting alters specific broad psychological orientations that are known to have an impact on voter turnout. The third is going to the polls changes the positive or negative feelings people have toward voting itself. The final hypothesis is that civic participation alters the way that people look at themselves overtime.

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Policy Implications

Regardless of party, voting becomes a habit for everyone. The null hypothesis that voting in a previous year did nothing to stimulate voting has now been rejected. Local, state, and national levels of governance play a role in the continuation of this habit. Habits form through repetition, as people feel more comfortable after doing an activity. Alternations in the political environment, such as less mobilization activity, that decreases turnout have cumulative consequences that should be avoided. The formation of voting habits is all about consistency in maintaining effective registration options and continuously reaching out to citizens, both in person and through other means.

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