The results of work on voter registration, led by UCL’s Professor Peter John and supported by the Behavioural Insights Team have been published in the journal Electoral Studies. This paper reports the results of a randomised controlled trial in a London borough.
In order to vote in the UK, you need to register in advance. Voter registration is therefore important, as failure to register can lead residents to become effectively disenfranchised. Registration also helps to prevent fraud, and can improve residents’ credit ratings as registration details are often used in credit checks. Local authorities have an obligation to register all eligible residents in their area to vote. Typically, efforts to do so involve a series of letters sent out to residents encouraging them to register. People who do not register after receiving these letters are then subject to a door-to-door canvass. At the end of this process, almost everyone will be registered to vote. The canvass, however, is very expensive, and so, there is a strong incentive for local authorities to register as many people are possible before a canvass is necessary.
This trial illustrates a core claim in behavioural economics: prospect theory, which shows that people overweight the probability of unlikely outcomes with high rewards, which explains why ordinarily risk averse people might still play the lottery. Residents in this London borough were offered either no lottery, or told that one resident would win £1,000 in a lottery if they registered before a certain date, or that one resident would win £5,000 if they registered before the same date.
At the end of the trial period, we found that the lottery incentive was effective, increasing registrations to 46.2% in the £1,000 condition compared to 44.7% in the control group. Although the £5,000 condition increased registrations a little more, to 46.6%, this difference was not statistically significant– although the £1,000 lottery was more cost effective for the local authority. After the local authority had carried out its door to door canvass, there were no differences between the three groups – showing that the lottery made people register faster, saving the local authority money, but did not change the overall rates of voter registration.