How Nudge Theory Helps Us Design Effective Voter Registration Systems

February 3, 2023

 

How Nudge Theory Helps Us Design Effective Voter Registration Systems

Citizens want governments to make their lives simpler. At IRG, we believe governments should use available technologies to reduce unnecessary burdens and logistical headaches borne by individual citizens. To do this, governments can look to “Nudge Theory,” a concept of behavioral economics that encourages the use of thoughtful design choices—called “nudges”—to ensure that people can easily locate and select their preferred option. As explained in the seminal 2008 work Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness and its 2021 follow-up Nudge: The Final Edition1, a good nudge ensures that most people will select the option that most people actually want, without restricting options for those in the minority who want something different. Nudges include sensible defaults, clear presentation of information, and helpful hints.

Effective voter registration systems are a perfect example of the benefits of Nudge Theory. The best voter registration systems are packed with useful nudges — and lackluster systems can implement these changes to improve usability and effectiveness:

  • The most sensible default is to register all eligible voters or update their registrations unless they ask the government not to. The most sensible default is the option that most people want to choose—that’s the choice that we should make the easiest. Data confirms that people overwhelmingly want to be registered to vote at their current address.2 They just don’t know how, don’t have time, haven’t gotten to it yet, don’t realize that their old registration is out of date, or mistakenly think they are already registered. Because most people want to be registered with their current information, that’s the choice that state governments should make the default option. If a state learns that someone is eligible to vote in that state or has an out of date registration (for instance, because of data collected during a DMV or Medicaid transaction), it should automatically register them to vote at their current address unless they choose to opt out.
  • Prospective voters should clearly understand any streamlined registration process. People can only make intelligent choices about registration if they understand their options. Voter registration notices should use concise, easy-to-understand drafting with thoughtfully designed visual cues (like bullet points, graphics, or text design).3
  • People need helpful hints about their current registration status. One of the primary reasons that eligible Americans aren’t registered is because they mistakenly believe that they already are.4 With 1 in 8 Americans changing addresses each year, it’s hardly surprising that voter rolls are full of outdated registrations. To solve this problem, the government can use the data it already has to flag that a voter’s registration file should be changed when the voter changes the address on their drivers’ license or tax returns, and can prompt people to unregister in one state if they move to another.

While we’re adding thoughtful nudges, Nudge Theory also teaches us to also reduce sludge. Sludge is bureaucratic red tape that makes it more difficult for people to choose the option they want. Sludge usually takes the form of government-imposed chores: repetitive or lengthy forms, unclear or hard-to-find information, multiple steps with multiple agencies, complicated documentation, in-person office visits, long lines, and snail mail. If it makes citizens’ lives harder but isn’t mission-critical, we should eliminate it.

In the voter registration context, we can reduce sludge by bundling voter registration with other bureaucratic tasks. Americans spend eleven billion hours annually filling out government forms (yes, that was “billion” with a “b”).5 Many of these forms require the exact same information that is also needed to register to vote: name, address, date of birth, citizenship verification, and so on. When you interact with the DMV, tax agency, Medicaid, and other state services, the state already has all the information it needs to also confirm your eligibility, register you to vote, or update your registration—unless you tell them not to. They don’t need you to fill out any more forms. And we don’t need to spend taxpayer money paying data entry clerks to process all those extra forms.

Some might argue that concepts like nudge, sludge, and choice design just amount to paternalism—but they don’t. Paternalism is when other people (usually elites or the government) nudge or even require you to make the choice that they want you to make. At IRG, we nudge people toward choices that they themselves want to make, saving them time and effort in the process.

Research shows the overwhelming majority of people want to be registered at their current address. Using Nudge Theory in voter registration just makes this a simpler process. People can always freely opt out of voter registration even under the most automated registration models—and after all, the most important way to opt out of democratic participation is to just not vote. But because most people want to participate in our democracy, we can and should use existing technologies to make that choice as easy as possible.


1. This article relies heavily on Nudge Theory as laid out in the 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and in the recently updated Nudge: The Final Edition, Thaler and Sunstein (2021).

2. When Colorado implemented a fully automated opt-out system, it found that only 0.6% of eligible voters—just over one half of one percent—actually decline registration. See Changing the Default: The Impact of Motor-Voter Reform in Colorado by Justin Grimmer & Jonathan Rodden, Stanford University, Dep’t. of Political Science (2022).

3. A complete guide to plain-language drafting for voter-facing election materials is provided for free by the Center for Civic Design at https://civicdesign.org/fieldguides/.

4. Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient: Evidence That America’s Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade, Pew Charitable Trusts (2012).

5. Nudge: The Final Edition, at 167.