Google Online Voter Registration Could Decrease Turnout

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It’s now easier than ever to register to vote over the web: Google is the latest tech powerhouse to support online registration with TurboVote, a slick step-by-step portal that conveniently mails US citizens a mostly-filled out registration card, along with a pre-printed envelope. However, experimental research into the impact of such online registration systems [PDF] finds that they actually decrease registration. Apparently, the ease of the online process lulls citizens into complacency and they forget to follow through with the rest of the process. The unfortunate drawback can be offset with SMS reminders, which TurboVote encourages. So, depending on the number of people comfortable giving Google their digits, this well-intentioned experiment could backfire.

In the study, researchers Elizabeth Bennion and David Nickerson randomly assigned 260,000 students on 26 campuses to receive an email invitation to register to vote online and verified whether they later registered through an independent database. “Unfortunately, the cost of follow-through is higher than the cost of registering via other avenues,” the report finds, with a 0.3% decrease in actual register for the group that was invited to register online. The counter-intuitive results reveal that noble attempts to make registration more tempting for young citizens could backfire.

In light of the results, youth vote advocacy organization, Rock-the-Vote, found that SMS reminders to finish the paperwork could (slightly) reverse the results, boosting completed registration in the SMS group by 4%.

Unfortunately, though, more young civic coach potatoes can be disenfranchised through an online invitation and those who respond to SMS nagging, since only 20% are willing to share their cell phone number (0.2*.04 = 0.008 vs. .03). Depending on how many sign up for SMS reminders with Google’s TurboVote partnership, the entire effort could be a mistake.

And, one more methodological note in fairness to Google: TurboVote is completely opt-in, whereas the study emailed students to encouraged them to register. The online feature could be used solely by people who would otherwise not register the traditional way and would therefore be (slightly) beneficial.

Either way, online registration has a dismal impact on registration rates. The best known get-out-the vote techniques only boost turnout by about 8% (via door-to-door canvassing), and is a far cry from America’s +80% turnout rates in the late 19th century.

We applaud Google for their civic intentions, but they should heed their own advice and let data guide their actions.