Karlan: Like weight loss, voting in ’08 requires commitment

Voters in battleground states are already under siege … and it’s only going to get worse. Campaigns and advocacy groups will spend millions to Get Out the Vote. Most of this money will be spent at the last minute to get people already voting to vote. Many other likely voters will fail to vote and later regret not participating in our democratic process. What market solutions can resolve both of these issues?

First, we need to understand the problems. Here are two interesting facts. First, more people say they will vote than actually vote. This means that people intend to vote, but then on the day of voting something happens. Something stops them from voting.

Second, more people claim to have voted than actually voted. Assuming there isn’t a case of mass amnesia every election, this implies that many people want to be the type of person who votes. And they are willing to lie to pretend to be that person. This says it is really important to them to identify as a “voter,” i.e., they regret not doing what they had wanted to do.

Why do people often disagree with their actions? When they state whether they intend to vote, they are stating that they perceive the benefits (civic duty?) to outweigh the costs (time?). But when election day arrives, the benefits no longer outweigh the costs — thus, they do not vote. Whereas most of the energy in Get Out the Vote is focused on changing perceptions on the benefits of voting, a hindrance may indeed be the unanticipated costs of voting. So, what’s to be done?

Research from psychology, political science and economics suggests that a particular mechanism can solve both problems: commitment contracts.

Suppose you offered a friend the following contract: we will go vote together, and if I do not show up at our agreed upon time, I will pay you a sum of money. The plan will work for two important reasons. First, we have clear evidence that social pressure can increase voter participation. Recent research by Yale political scientists Don Green and Alan Gerber in the Michigan 2006 primary showed that merely telling people that their publicly available voting records will actually be publicized to their neighbors is an incredible motivation to vote. Second, the gesture makes voting cheaper by making it costly not to vote. As we know, when price goes down, demand goes up. Even voting is not immune to this basic law of economics.

The same contract can be written with a friend to commit to other political activities, such as canvassing, participating in a phone bank, or even donating money. In general, a commitment contract is simply a way to make it cheaper to do the things you want to do but often don’t follow through with, such as vote (or lose weight, or exercise more or clean out the garage).

Thus commitment contracts raise the price of undesirable-in-the-long-term but tempting-in-the-short-run behaviors. Academic theories behind this focus on conflicts within a person. The “now” me wants the “tomorrow” me to vote (or not eat too much chocolate, or exercise more or save more). If the “now” me has enough foresight, the “now” me can sign a commitment contract. This contract makes the price of the tempting behavior more expensive, thus making sure the “tomorrow” me does what I said I wanted to do.

For some, writing a contract with a friend is difficult. The friend may not actually take your money if you fail to vote. To make it easier for folks to write contracts, we have created a free Web site, www.stickK.com, where anyone can make a binding commitment to vote on November 4th, 2008.

StickK can verify (using publicly available data) whether someone fulfills their commitment to vote. If they do not, stickK charges the person’s credit card for whatever amount they chose when they signed the contract. Individuals choose where the money gets sent, but most choose to send it to charity (chosen by stickK, so the individual gets no specific pleasure from knowing where the money goes), or even more harsh, to an “anti-charity,” one of ten politically-polarizing charities, such as the Bill Clinton Presidential Library or the George W. Bush Presidential Library (the idea being that individuals choose a charity they abhor, thus making sure they follow through with their intended actions).

How can this solve the onslaught problem of organizations and campaigns relentlessly calling homes to get people to vote? Imagine if organizations and campaigns all agreed to honor a “do not call those who have made commitments” list? Organizations would love it: they would know that these individuals are truly committed to voting; any phone call or visit is wasted money. People would love it: fewer harassing phone calls and doorbell rings!

The solution could serve a great social benefit too, beyond increasing participation in the elections. Imagine all the money spent on Getting Out the Vote being put to other uses. What could be done with those donated funds? They could be spent on improving schools, providing health services or building bombs, depending on your political views.

We all say we will do things, and we really mean to do them, but something happens and we do not. This applies to voting as much as losing weight, exercising more and quitting smoking. Commitment contracts can help people complete those tasks they want to complete but don’t always manage to finish. And here is a perfect example of how commitment contracts can not only solve problems for individuals but also actually help firms and organizations waste fewer resources.

To make it more interesting for Yale undergrads, we setup the Web site http://www.stickk.com/yale: Enter into a voting contest across colleges; the college with the highest voting rate wins bragging rights.

Dean Karlan is a professor of economics. Contact him at