New Research Suggests Text Messages Improve Election Day Turnout in the Developing World, With Conditions

We now have evidence that text messages improve civic engagement in emerging countries by encouraging people to vote.
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It's well known that mobile phones are changing every day life in the developing world -- particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The spread of cell phones coupled with the ease and efficiency of text messaging helps people save, spend, and invest their money more wisely. Text messages and mobile apps improve health outcomes by teaching people about nutrition and reminding patients to take their medication. They also further education by helping students learn more effectively through virtual tutoring.

We now have evidence that text messages improve civic engagement in emerging countries by encouraging people to vote. A recent study I conducted in Kenya with Benjamin Marx, an economist at MIT, and Vincent Pons, of Harvard Business School, found that get-out-the-vote text messages increased Election Day turnout by as much as 2 percentage points. This increased participation in democracy comes with a condition, however. If voters perceive that elections aren't free and fair, they lose trust. Put another way: when voters willingly place their faith in electoral institutions -- the very essence of voting -- those institutions had better make good on their promises.

Democracy in the developing world is a fragile thing. Corruption and fraud are common features of elections and understandably, voters feel disillusioned and angry. In Kenya's 2007 election, that anger turned to bloodshed. After Kenya's election commission ignored evidence of vote rigging that kept the ruling government in power, the country erupted into violence and hundreds of people were killed.

The following year, Kenya's government worked to rebuild trust. The country adopted political reforms and created a new constitution. It also replaced its old electoral commission with a new one: the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), tasked with creating a new register of voters across the country. Before the 2013 election, the IEBC purchased biometric voter registration kits, based on fingerprint technology, to mitigate identification issues at polling stations.

To study the effects of text messages on people's voting behavior, we partnered with IEBC to conduct an experiment. In the six days leading up to the election, we sent eleven million texts to slightly less than two million prospective voters across Kenya. The messages were intended to rally voters and provided either basic encouragements to vote, background on the changes in the elective positions that people could vote for, or information on the electoral commission itself. The IEBC was under intense public scrutiny during the electoral period. The text messages were its way of reaching out to voters in a gesture of honesty and openness.

On one hand, the intervention succeeded: using official electoral results as well as independently collected survey data, we found that the text messages increased voter turnout by 1 to 2 percentage points. Our results suggest that text messages are a quick, cost-effective way to promote individual civic and political engagement. (By our estimate, the IEBC spent between 28 and 56 cents per increased participant -- a negligible cost in the eyes of any political body).

But on the other hand, the text messages failed. They raised voters' expectations that the election would be free, fair, and orderly -- and the IEBC did not deliver. On Election Day, much of the expensive biometric equipment that it relied on to guarantee a transparent election crashed, as did the electronic system for the transmission of results from each polling station to the central server. This shattered the high expectations the IEBC had set for a well-organized election. And as a result, the text messages -- which were meant to instill confidence in Kenya's precarious democracy -- decreased trust in the electoral commission by 5%. According to our survey, this decrease in trust was concentrated among those whose preferred candidate lost.

Our findings highlight the challenges of building trust in democracy. While it's clear that get-out-the-vote text messages have enormous potential to increase civic engagement and participation, it's also clear that these messages carry an implicit promise of transparency and openness. When the promise is broken, voters lose confidence.

Getting voters to the polls and providing them education is essential to any democracy, but voters also need to have faith in the democratic process and the institutions at the helm. Building that credibility is not easy: promising and then failing to deliver can have detrimental effects on the very trust you are trying to build. * The Perils of Building Democracy in Africa by Benjamin Marx, Vincent Pons, and Tavneet Suri

Tavneet Suri is an Associate Professor of Applied Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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