Why voting is like eating ice cream

In the past I’ve posted about how I believe that voting should be more convenient, and that this could help start a virtuous loop that might lead more young people to vote. Specifically, I’ve lamented that we have a voting system that concentrates voting stations in community centres, churches and schools – places that are out of the way and/or not on common commuting paths for many young people.

People can complain that young people are lazy. Maybe they are – but so what? In an era where things are available at the click of a mouse young people are accustomed to a different level of convenience. You might wish they were willing to walk through the snow for a kilometer or two to vote, but by and large they aren’t. Does this mean that I don’t think we should try to encourage people to care about voting more – absolutely not, I’m a huge fan of groups like Student Vote. But I believe that there may be some quick – more readily achieved – and cheaper wins in designing voting systems for lazy people. This would certainly be easier than trying to make people less lazy.

I’ve recently started following the blog by the authors of Nudge, since I’m a big fan of figuring out how we can passively design systems to that encourage people to adopt “good” behaviours. Recently they pointed to a food/diet blog that outlined the conclusions of the following (sadly uncited) experiment:

“One cafeteria tested (how much effort people will go to to eat ice cream) by leaving the lid of an ice cream cooler closed on some days and open on other days. The ice cream cooler was in the exact same location, and people could always see the ice cream.  All that varied was whether they had to go through the effort of opening the lid in order to get it.  Even that was too much work for many people.  If the lid was closed, only 14% of the diners decided it was worth the modest effort to open it.  If the lid was open, 30% decided it was ice cream time.”

Essentially, this tiny shift doubled the number of people who chose ice cream. Rather than designing new (complicated) ways of voting, this is where I’d like to start. What are the small things we can do around voting to make it easier, to “nudge” people to make the civically minded choice? Voting booths in more places – and nicer places, say the local coffee shop? In the mall? Or how about on the street corner? And then of course, there is the postal voting (that actually comes on time and works) and the holy grail of on-line voting (with all of its dangerous identity implications).

Either way, let’s think about how we can re-engineer voting and make it easier for those of us born in the 20th (not to mention 21st) century. We could castigate and hate ourselves for being lazy – or we can design an easier way to vote, one that will nudge us towards a behaviour people seem to think is good. I know I’d rather spend my energy on the latter.

9 thoughts on “Why voting is like eating ice cream

  1. Joseph

    Some western states – I believe Nevada – have done just that, with early voting to boot. So the idea is you could on a casual day at the mall a week or so before the official election, just go up to a main public area, check in, and vote. That was one of the reasons Nevada began to seem out of reach to McCain in the closing days of the campaign, with so many voters taking care of voting beforehand and Obama appearing to lead by healthy margins in the sizable population who took advantage of it, McCain advisors began to diminish that state in their last efforts.I realize that example could be used as a negative as well. But my point is when the voting was made easy and convenient, as you've suggested, the public responded.

  2. Stephane Dubord

    I think it's time we de-sanctify the holy grail of online voting.If we can file our taxes online, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever that Elections Canada can't develop an online interface that is just as secure as the one used by CRA in collecting the most important of private information – SIN, DOB, income, etc.CRA got with the times, despite the biggest security hurdle. Why can't Elections Canada?

  3. CharlesGYF

    I might spend the money on other forms of civic engagement – nudge people to participate in events that lead up to elections. That's where I need we need to see more activity.

  4. Tony Toews

    I strongly disagree with online or electronic voting without a verifiable paper trail. An election is more important than tax returns because you can change your tax return if required.However the real problem with electronic voting is that someone, somewhere either supplied the computer code and/or has the passwords so they can change the results. Do we want to trust just one person? A computer administrator? Now granted we do the advance voting and the ballot boxes. There are very good reasons why there are two people at each polling station and why scrutineers from every political party are allowed both at the polling stations and at the count afterwards. We've spent decades if not centuries working on this system.We have to have that unbiased paper trail. We do a good job with this in Canada. Not so in many jurisdictions in the USA. See http://verifiedvoting.org/ for more information.I've been designing and developing software for just about thirty years. And I do *NOT* trust computer systems for voting.

  5. Caren Dymond

    Upgrade to Democracy 2.0 on May 12!Why change?Currently, candidates from one party can sweep a whole region even if a majority of voters choose other parties. Smaller parties and independents are shut out entirely. At best, only half of voters get representation. Furthermore, because parties run head to head for each seat, elections are often negative and politics are centralized. In 1996, the current system gave the NDP a majority with less than 40% of the votes, and fewer votes than the Liberals. Similarly, in 2001 the Liberals got 97% of the seats with less than 58% of the votes.Other democratic systems are available which create legislatures to better represent you and your fellow voters. On May 12 we have an opportunity to vote Yes to proportional representation. Who recommended change? BC Citizens' Assembly, a body created by the legislature which was composed of one man and one woman chosen at random from each riding in the province. They met for a year while studying possible voting systems and carefully considering oral and written submissions from thousands of British Columbians. After carefully considering all the options, they chose BC-STV almost unanimously.What is BC-STV? BC-STV is one type of proportional representation. There is more than one representative (MLA) for each riding. Voters rank one or more candidates in order of their preference. If your first-choice candidate is not elected, your vote isn't lost, but can be ‘transferred’ to another candidate you like. Currently, less than 50% of voters get an MLA they voted for. With STV 80-90% will get a representative they voted for.Will it change the way I vote? You can vote just the way you do now, but you have the option of ranking as many candidates as you like. If your first choice is eliminated, your vote is transferred to your second choice, and so on. Voting is as easy as 1, 2, 3 — just put numbers beside your favourite candidates. Candidates will actually need more votes to be elected, but they are drawn from a larger area. Only one vote gets counted per person. A candidate will still need around 20,000 votes. One way to understand how STV works is to imagine a gym full of kids who are going to have a round-robin basketball tourney. You need six captains, which mean six captains, but 10 kids volunteer. You ask the rest to choose their captains by standing next to them. At first, some of the volunteers will have lots of kids, others just one or two. Both the people in small groups and the extras in large groups will re-organize to stand next to their second or third choice for captain, so in the end, you have the 6 captains and the tourney can start.For more information:Government of BC http://www.gov.bc.ca/referendum_info/first_past…Say Yes to BC-STV http://stv.ca/joinSay No to BC-STV http://www.nostv.org/Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public

  6. facebook-116201147

    Long ago, when bank machines (ATM/ABM) were just coming in, one bank did an analysis of their “home” and “away” usage. They discovered that, even when there was a machine from a competing bank right across the street, people would use their machine (and pay the $1.50 service fee) rather than cross the street. Based on this knowledge, and a traffic count of busy streets, they adjusted their business plan to put a LOT more bank machines out in the field, since they could be justified (the “return on investment,” or ROI) based on the service fees from 'lazy' people alone. This kind of analysis could work for voting, too – if you really do want people to vote, make it easy for them. A lot more will do it. Thanks for pushing this, David, and for your overall excellent blog. Your writing muscle is certainly in fine form.

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