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NEWS ANALYSIS

Can Peer Pressure Defeat Trump?


In 2020, Democrats need millennials to turn out. Vote shaming apps can help.

By Amy Chozick
Ms. Chozick is a writer at large for The Times covering business, politics and media.

Feb. 22, 2019

Twelve years ago, social scientists cracked the code on how to get Americans to vote. Before a
special election in Michigan, 100,000 households received slightly different mailers: One
reminded them that voting was their civic duty. Another applied gentle social pressure by
including the voting history of everyone in that particular household (“Who votes is public
information!” it reminded them). The final flier — and by far the most powerful — revealed the
voting history of the recipients’ neighbors.

“What if your neighbors knew whether you voted?” it asked, along with a warning that after the
election, researchers would “publicize who does and does not vote.”

“It proved to be the most effective intervention ever uncovered by an order of magnitude,” said
Todd Rogers, a professor of public policy at Harvard who specializes in education and voting
behavior.

The findings had the power to transform political organizing, especially for Democratic
candidates who rely on high voter turnout. There was just one problem.

“It made people crazy and super irritated and offended,” Dr. Rogers said. “The underlying
psychology is that when people feel like they’re going to be held accountable, they’re more likely
to do it, but they also get really mad about it.”

So political groups backed away from the idea. For the next decade, even as we abandoned our
privacy with a swipe of the opt-in button and as apps that rely on social pressure proved effective
in dieting, parenting and saving for retirement, political organizers largely ignored the power of
peer pressure. Then came 2016 and the election of Donald Trump.

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“Not only did progressives lose, they were surprised they lost,” said Sangeeth Peruri, the founder
and chief executive of VoterCircle, a platform that allows users to tap into their address books and
easily identify and encourage (that is, nag) eligible voters. Users have the option to see whether
their contacts voted in past elections and whether they are registered Republicans or Democrats.

“Losing is one thing, but being surprised you lost is a failing of the system,” Mr. Peruri said. His
platform, one of the first, started in 2015. But others soon followed.

The shock of Mr. Trump’s election galvanized several developers who had worked on Barack
Obama’s presidential campaigns. Steeped in Silicon Valley debates about privacy, they wondered
if they’d been too timid about harnessing the enormous trove of publicly available voter data.
After all, party affiliation and voting history had long been used internally by campaigns. Maybe
political groups needed to stop caring about people’s feelings if it helped get them out to vote.

Mikey Dickerson, the executive director of the New Data Project and a former Google engineer
who was the chief of the United States Digital Service in the Obama administration, had learned
about the Michigan survey in 2008, but he didn’t come up with his VoteWithMe app until 2017. The
app outs anyone who didn’t vote in previous elections. (Alyssa Milano and Alexandria Ocasio-
Cortez, looks like you both sat out the 2014 midterms.)

It identifies friends in competitive districts (with a fire emoji) and provides handy text-message
reminder templates (“You gonna vote?”). “We looked around and didn’t think it had ever been
done before — putting voter-file data directly in front of you as the end user,” Mr. Dickerson said.

Many in the technology industry initially scoffed at his idea. (“VoteWithMe is a creepy new app
that checks your contacts’ voting history,” one article declared.) But several hundred thousand
users downloaded VoteWithMe before the midterms, and Mr. Dickerson, who plans to step back
and hand the technology over to like-minded groups, said lots of similar apps are springing up
ahead of 2020.

“I am worried about the foundations of the systems of government surviving and an


administration that puts kids in cages and separates families,” he said. “I’m not going to feel bad
that some of my friends, unaffected by any of this, have a mild amount of discomfort because
some jerk — probably me — can see whether or not they voted.”

The weight of peer pressure has a particular pull on millennials. They represent more than 30
percent of eligible voters, about on a par with baby boomers, but have the lowest voter turnout of
any age group. Only 49 percent of voters ages 18 to 35 voted in the 2016 presidential election,
according to the Pew Research Center. Democratic pollsters predict that increasing turnout
among millennials by 10 percentage points would all but guarantee they defeat Mr. Trump in
2020.
In an era when privacy feels like a nostalgic notion and our political leanings can be more or less
gleaned from where we live, how we dress and what we watch, is there even such a thing as the
sanctity of the voting booth? After several celebrities learned the hard way that most states don’t
permit photos inside the voting booth, last year California legalized “ballot selfies” (thank you,
Kim Kardashian). The day of the midterm elections, 1,000 people a minute were posting
Instagram stories with “I Voted” stickers, according to the company.

Developers said these turnout apps aren’t intended to shame anyone. As Debra Cleaver, the chief
executive of the San Francisco-based Vote.org, a nonprofit group that works to increase voter
participation, put it: “We call it social pressure or social validation. ʻVote shaming’ sounds like it
was coined by a reporter because it makes you want to click.” (Fair.)

They say their primary purpose is “relational organizing,” or tapping into your social network to
tell contacts about a candidate or election (as opposed to the old-fashioned and less effective
“operational organizing” that involves dispatching volunteers to cold-call strangers). In other
words, coastal liberals can make a difference while fiddling with an app on their sofas (“I know
you’re going to vote on Nov. 6, duh, but make sure to remind your friends!” one text template
reads), rather than flying to Iowa to knock on strangers’ doors. “I haven’t knocked on a door since
2014,” Ms. Cleaver said.

Buffy Wicks, a community organizer and former Obama campaign aide who was recently elected
to the California State Assembly, said it doesn’t have to be “an either/or.” She hosted 239 house
parties at which she encouraged supporters to download VoterCircle, but she also knocked on
115,559 doors. More than 100,000 people voted for her.

The rush to design apps to increase voter turnout is part of a wider push in Silicon Valley —
trying to shake the taint of peddling fake news and Russian propaganda — toward “civic tech,” or
innovations designed in the public interest. “There’s obviously a P.R. aspect,” Ms. Cleaver said.
“But there is no way relational organizing apps can undo the damage that Facebook and Twitter
have done.”

Nevertheless, the apps are gaining traction. Revolution Messaging and Phone2Action and other
liberal websites allow users to pressure their representatives, raise money and support
candidates. Republicans have developed apps to, for instance, bolster the National Rifle
Association or donate to Mr. Trump’s re-election.

All of these, plus the individual apps that the armada of Democratic candidates running for
president will soon offer, are enough to give anyone app fatigue. That’s why, in the coming
months, Mr. Peruri of VoterCircle plans to rebrand his platform as OutreachCircle, making it a
liberal one-stop shop to plan house parties, call your representative, advocate for a cause, give
money to a candidate … and, if you’re so inclined, snoop on your friends’ voting history.
The goal is to eventually build habits so that rather than just ranting on Twitter, people can use
OutreachCircle to keep their communities engaged, essentially performing the function of an old-
fashioned neighborhood precinct captain or PTA president. “Our influencers aren’t Katy Perry.
It’s your church leader or your high school coach,” Mr. Peruri said.

The apps are limited by often incomplete voter data (not even Silicon Valley can make the Board
of Elections efficient). But Naseem Makiya, the chief executive of Outvote, an app that worked
with MoveOn.org and Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, said preliminary results show that a
single text from a friend makes people roughly 10.2 percent more likely to vote. Other developers
said peer-to-peer messaging led to a two to three percentage point increase in turnout last
November — enough to swing races in tight districts.

Robin Wolaner, a 64-year-old retired executive in San Francisco, used VoteWithMe to identify
friends and family in competitive districts in Pennsylvania. “Frankly, most of my friends don’t
need a reminder to go vote for Nancy Pelosi,” Ms. Wolaner said. As for vote shaming (sorry, I
mean social validation), she tried to gingerly remind contacts that their voting history was public.

“In some cases I sent messages saying: ʻCan this be right? Did you really skip the last midterm
election?’” Ms. Wolaner said. “My kids would tell you I am a natural born nag, so it sort of fit my
personality.”

Natasha Baker, a 30-year-old lawyer in Washington, said she used VoteWithMe to encourage
distant friends and family in Indiana and Virginia to vote. “It’s kind of creepy, I have to admit,”
she said. But, she added, “If you have a friend who you can see voted in every election, you don’t
have to spend your afternoon on that.”

Then there is the voyeuristic urge to snoop. Mr. Dickerson was surprised to see that the
VoteWithMe app was trending in the Apple store days after the midterm elections. “It doesn’t
make a ton of sense — we’ve had no ads or promotions since voting,” Mr. Dickerson said.

But to behavioral scientists, the downloads made perfect sense. “We are intensely social
creatures and need to situate ourselves inside the collective,” said Robert Cialdini, a professor
emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University and the author of several
books on peer influence.

He cited a study he did at a Holiday Inn in Tempe, Ariz. His team compared the usual cards
requesting that guests reuse their towels to protect the environment with several alternatives:
One added that most guests of the hotel had reused their towels; another said that most guests
“who stayed in this room” had reused their towels.

The last spurred a compliance rate of 49 percent, the largest spike in towel recycling the hotel had
ever seen. “We think we’re free-standing individuals,” Dr. Cialdini said. But we “believe that the
choice of our peers will work well for us, too.”
Maybe that was why I felt compelled one Sunday afternoon to sit in a coffee shop with a friend
and scroll through VoteWithMe with the giddy enthusiasm of a sample sale. I learned that one
friend who lives in the West Village, owns a Beto T-shirt and has been known to insufferably
quote the Pod Save America bros didn’t vote in the past midterm elections. (You know who you
are.) My uncle in Texas who watches Fox News, however, was designated a “strong voter.”

There may, however, be a fundamental flaw in the theory driving the apps. As developers work to
expand them from hundreds of thousands of downloads during the midterms to mainstream use
by millions ahead of the 2020 election, they could be leaving out the very voters Democrats most
need to reach.

The tendency of people to mimic their social networks — what behavioral scientists call
homophily — could backfire in this case. Politically engaged people who download voting apps,
and the friends they nag, will probably show up at the polls in greater numbers. But the opposite
could be true for those in poor and disenfranchised communities where voting isn’t the norm.

Dr. Rogers, the Harvard public policy professor, pointed to a 2015 study that observed social
pressure on students by making an SAT prep session sign-up sheet public. Students in the A.P.
class signed up in greater numbers when they knew their friends would see the list. Sign-ups in
the remedial class, however, where studying wasn’t as socially accepted, decreased. “The
increased transparency could have unintended consequences,” Dr. Rogers said, “if you look at
your network and see no one votes.”

Ms. Cleaver of Vote.org said she worried that this was a blind spot typical of Silicon Valley, an
industry dominated by male engineers who are generally from privileged backgrounds.
“Everyone wants the solution to increasing voter turnout to be an app, but turnout is low in this
country because of decades of racism, sexism and voter suppression,” she said.

Ms. Cleaver, a self-described “tech person” who is backed by the start-up accelerator Y
Combinator, urged me to write about anything other than these apps. She proposed an article
about the perils of voter registration still being tied to the Department of Motor Vehicles when a
growing number of young people don’t have driver’s licenses. Or what about the problem with
mail-in ballots that require a signature when young people don’t know cursive? Don’t even get
her started on new voters being required to print forms. (“I mean, who owns a printer?”)

She said that the tech industry, once hailed as a savior, is undergoing an identity crisis for good
reason. “The logical conclusion of technology is that it all goes terribly awry,” she said. For the
2020 election, her group, Vote.org, plans to spend millions of dollars on billboards.

Amy Chozick is a writer at large for The Times covering business, politics and media, and the author of “Chasing
Hillary: On the Trail of the First Woman President Who Wasnʼt.”

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Amy Chozick is a New York-based writer at large for The Times. @amychozick • Facebook

A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 24, 2019, on Page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Can Peer Pressure Defeat
Trump?

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