Self-Fulfilling Prophecies and Young Voter Engagement

By State Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-Portland).

The stories that we tell affect the decisions that we make.

Stay Standing if You're a Voter

For the past eight years, I have helped build an organization that among other things has registered and mobilized tens of thousands young voters. Along the way, I learned from errors as much as from successes. A few years ago, I began my talks in high schools by illustrating to students just how many people don't vote.

First, I would ask the entire class to stand up. Then I would ask people born on even numbered days -- half the room -- to sit down as representatives of the people who were not eligible or registered to vote. Next, I would ask folks born in January through June -- a half of the remaining half -- to sit down as representatives of the registered people who didn't vote. The remaining students standing -- about a quarter of the room -- showed starkly a challenge with democratic participation.

I meant to highlight a crisis. I might also have been softly worsening one.

The Power of Social Proof

A recent study compared get-out-the-vote phone scripts. Script one: "Calling to make sure you vote. Voter turnout is looking to be low this year, so it's really important that you cast your ballot." Script two: "Voter turnout is looking really high this year, so it's important that you get your ballot in."

The first script announces urgency, crisis, and purpose -- all frequent persuaders -- and offers the rational benefit that votes in low turnout elections count more than in high turnout elections. That first script sounds persuasive to me.

But it turns out less effective.

The second, "positive turnout" script was significantly more effective. "Lots of people are voting" is scientifically proven to be a more effective message than "few people are voting."

Positive social proof works. We all look to peers for cues on how to behave. If friends do not vote, we are less likely to vote. Essentially, prior to learning some of the social science and changing the route, I was trying to sell music to a classroom of students by saying, "Hey kids, no one likes this new CD. You want to buy it?"

Urban Outfitters, Bush Rangers, and Old People

There are numerous and notable examples in democracy of negative social proof. We now know that when our cable news pundits announce an "enthusiasm gap" or repeat the narrative that "young people don't vote," that itself is a voter suppression strategy.

In 2004, Urban Outfitters rolled out a t-shirt design that read, "Voting is for Old People." We got the joke. Perhaps it was a coincidence that Urban Outfitters is owned by a former Bush Ranger -- a group perhaps unenthused by the prospect of youngsters voting in greater numbers. (We were confident that a t-shirt could be made that was just as stupid, every bit as inappropriate, but encouraged voting. So we did.)

The Voter Suppression Narrative

Urban Outfitters isn't alone. Conservative pundits pooh-pooh the power of the youth vote relentlessly. John Stossel, now with Fox News, has gone so far as to suggest that young people shouldn't vote. (We responded).

This drumbeat of negativity becomes a narrative with real implications. There is a strong Heisenberg-like effect, wherein the analysis of the thing impacts the thing. In addition to entering the psyche of young voters themselves, the suppression storyline becomes conventional wisdom -- the dominant frame and a powerful meme. Campaigns make decisions to stop talking to young voters since outreach to the demographic represents a luxury that tight-fisted campaigns think that they simply can't afford.

A Better Prophecy

This would be smart if it weren't so dumb. More votes were cast by voters under the age of 30 than by voter over the age of 65 in 2008. By all available evidence, the vast majority of young adults care about democracy, voting, and elections. When candidates bother to talk to them, they bother to vote. And voting is habit-forming. Once we have helped someone come to the voting booth, we have a better chance of getting them to come again.

So the burden is on us. The chattering classes of American Democracy can change the way we talk about voting in one-on-one conversations, on Facebook, in the media, in campaigns, and everywhere it matters. The nattering nabobs, some motivated for reasons beyond accuracy to extend the negative narrative, might not be likely to natter differently anytime soon. Many will continue the voter suppression narrative.

But you and me, we can start telling a different story. After our fun stand-up-sit-down illustrations of turnout, we can highlight real and positive stuff.

Millions of young adults vote. Hundreds of thousands volunteer. Thousands will don costumes this Halloween and talk to their neighbors. Thousands descended on Washington for new energy policy. Oregon has had the biggest influx of under-40 legislators in State history. This November, Montana might elect its first openly gay man in the state house...he's 26 years old. Indeed, civic participation among our next generation has been up for the past 5+ years, starting prior to the 2008 election.

We can tell different stories; we can share a different narrative. And we can start fulfilling a better prophecy.

[Editor's note: This item originally appeared at Huffington Post.]

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