science of us

It Is Stupidly Important to Plan Your Election-Day Logistics

Good for this guy for being enthusiastic, but this year Election Day is November 8, so. Photo: Anthony Calvacca/The New York Post via Getty Images

Amid all the chaos of Decision 2016, there may be one decision you have not yet given ample consideration to: When are you going to vote?

No, as in, exactly when are you going to vote? If you’re not in a state that offers early or mail-in voting, perhaps you are thinking, On Tuesday, dummy. This is not nearly good enough. You need a plan. An actual plan.

As countless others have pointed out, there are so many small and large changes that could be made to make it easier for Americans to vote, particularly for the old and infirm, or for those who can’t easily take time away from their jobs or families to stand in line at the polls. But it somehow did not occur to me until reading an opinion piece in the New York Times earlier this week that even people who, on paper, do have amenable lives and schedules for Election Day voting might not always follow through with their intentions. As writer David Leonhardt points out, life — “a traffic jam, a sick kid, or a work meeting” — has an irritating habit of getting in the way.

There is a stupidly simple solution for this: Make a plan. In 2010, two researchers — David W. Nickerson of the University of Notre Dame and Todd Rogers of Ideas42, a nonprofit dedicated to social-science research — published a paper in Psychological Science revealing the results of a simple but fascinating field experiment they carried out during the 2008 presidential primary election. Starting the Saturday before election day and continuing through that Monday, they called a total of 287,228 voters in Pennsylvania, limiting their calls to those registered as Democrats, as that was the competitive primary race that year.

On some of those calls, voters who answered “received a vague encouragement to vote,” as Leonhardt phrased it. But others were asked three very specific questions:

• What time would they be voting?

• Where would they be coming from?

• And what would they be doing beforehand?

In other words, the phone-banker prompted the voter to think ahead and make a specific plan. And it seems like it worked: Overall, the researchers claim, that encouragement to think about election-day logistics increased voter turnout by 4.1 percentage points; among households with a single eligible voter, this strategy increased voter turnout by 9.1 percentage points. (Those who lived in a house with multiple eligible voters, the researchers found, were likelier to have already made their election-day plans.)

That was in a primary election, where voter turnout typically tends to be lower than in a presidential election, of course. But on Twitter this morning, David Hagmann, a Ph.D. student in social science at Carnegie Mellon, pointed out an example of this planning strategy he’d come across in the wild:

It sounds so brainless that it barely seems worth mentioning, but research in other areas of psychology has shown how important very specific plans are if you want to turn your good intentions into actions. It helps people exercise consistently; it helps students study adequately. Gabriele Oettingen, a psychologist at New York University, has argued that your positive fantasies about your future self are likelier to become reality when you form an if/then plan: If this obstacle arises, then you will do X to get past it.

Again, the questions at hand are these: What time will you be voting? Where will you be coming from? And what will you be doing beforehand? Answer them! It matters.

It Is Stupidly Important to Plan Your Election-Day Logistics