Turn On. Tune In. Drop Out? Voter Turnout in the Digital Age

From Politico to Snapchat, Telemundo to Buzzfeed News, The Wall Street Journal to Hulu, a sporting event of historic proportions will captivate American viewers Monday night. For all the frenzy around this presidential Super Bowl, one would expect unprecedented levels of voter engagement. With every corner of the new media landscape promoting Hillary v. Donald, a massive advertising campaign is underway for the grand event culminating November 8th. Surely the marketing onslaught will draw the electorate to the polls in throngs, compelling all but the most disaffected and disengaged to cast their ballot?

Or not.

When it comes to the business of electoral marketing, the results are surprisingly dismal. Back in 1960, 62.8% of voting-age Americans voted, whereas in the age of the internet, new media and mass cross-channel marketing, that number came down to 54.9% in 2012. Data from The Pew Research Center reveals just how poorly the political election marketing machine is doing in getting out the vote. Despite the ever-lengthening election season, billions spent on ads, and an abundance of free media enveloping the voting-eligible population, Americans lag far behind our international peers in casting ballots.

Of the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a list of "highly developed, democratic states", the U.S. came in...31st. Our low ranking isn't due to mandatory voting laws abroad; only 6 of the listed countries have compulsory voting. However, the majority of the nations on the list do far more to register voters, and the government takes on a larger role. In contrast, here in the U.S., the onus is on the individual, who lives within the backdrop of a surge of media messages, political spending, and state regulations encouraging--or disturbingly, discouraging--the acts of registering and voting.

A complex array of factors keeps us at such low numbers. Apathy, frustration and distrust of the political system constitute genuine obstacles to voter turnout, but the problem runs much deeper, involving significant barriers to voting in this country.

Republican moves to pass stringent voter ID laws have had the effect of disenfranchising large numbers of would-be voters, particularly people of color. The Washington Post reported on a series of studies conducted at University of California, San Diego exploring the marked racial disparities in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. The researchers found instances that caused gaps between black and white voters "to almost double to 8.5 points." For Latino voters, turnout "was suppressed by 10.8 points in states with strict photo ID laws, compared to states without them. For multiracial Americans, the drop was 12.8 points." Voter purges and irregularities such as the elimination of 125,000 votes in Brooklyn, New York's Democratic primary also disproportionately affected Latino voters and eroded trust more generally in the entire electoral process.

Systemic challenges prevent the type of massive voter turnout we should strive for as a democratic society, but our abysmally low rates of voter engagement are due to more than governmental failings. The level of disengagement we see each election cycle is uniquely striking considering that it exists in the midst of America's world-renowned, 24/7 media barrage. We may be galvanizing viewers to turn on the TV or livestream the reality show, but when it comes to taking action, how many will show up?

Stanford University behavioral scientists could give a few tips to anyone campaigning to motivate voting. It turns out that saturating people with election news, phone calls, and ads does not constitute effective election marketing. If the goal is to actually spur people to cast their ballots, here's what works:

1. Make a Plan. Voting comes down to logistics. Voters who are encouraged to make a specific plan and to determine exactly how and when they'll be arriving at their polling location are far more likely to go. General motivation doesn't work nearly as well.

2. Invoke Personal Accountability. Calling upon a sense of personal responsibility nearly doubled turnout in the Stanford research. Flyers asking voters if they could be contacted after the election to discuss their experience yielded far greater results than flyers that didn't hold voters accountable.

3. Ignore this article. Well, just the parts about low voter turnout. Emphasizing poor voter engagement actually serves to demotivate voters and create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Voters who are told that turnout will be high respond to the social behavior of their peers, and they do more than tune in.

They turn out.

Gabe Fenigsohn is a progressive writer, researcher and opiner on media, brand, and politics. He follows the social impact of advertising and is a member of the Brooklyn-based digital creative team Cardwell Beach.