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electionlineWeekly — July 27, 2017

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I. In Focus This Week

The Friend Vote
Website means to put a little peer pressure on friends to encourage participation

By M. Mindy Moretti
Electionline.org

Our good friends at Merriam-Webster define peer pressure as: a feeling that one must do the same things as other people of one's age and social group in order to be liked or respected by them.

Concerned about voter apathy, a group from the University of Montana created The Friend Vote website in order to allow Missoula County, Montana residents to put a little positive peer pressure on their friends, neighbors and colleagues.

The Friend Vote allows people to see how — but obviously not for who — friends have voted and is designed to help people motivate their friends to get registered and vote.

The Friend Vote allows people to search public voting records to find out if their friends are registered and regularly voting. Then, it provides tools and guidance to help people reach out to their friends with targeted messages to get them to vote, or keep them voting.

The project was lead by Sara Rinfret, associate professor of political science and public administration, Bryce Ward, health care director/associate director of the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research and Justin Angle from the School of Business administration.

“We wanted to work together across disciplines and better understand how to use technology to encourage participation,” said Rinfret.

The Friend Vote currently uses the voter database from Missoula County. Election Administrator Rebecca Connors was an eager participant in the project.

“Election Administrators not only want to see 100 percent voter turnout for an election to ensure we have a robust democracy, but also because as someone who conducts elections and understands the time, money, energy, and people-power to make elections happen, we want to see voters utilize the services our office offers,” Connors said. “If knowing your friend's participation rate encourages you to vote more, that's a good thing! I would love to see this app increase local election turnout as those elections are just as important as a presidential one.” 

More than 700 people visited the site, but Ward said the registration page was a deterrent. Fewer than 100 registered.

Rinfert, they are working on crunching the data from the site and hope have more concrete results in early fall. Those who registered searched for 330 registered voters.

Those who registered mostly searched for high propensity voters. Seventy three percent of the registered voters whose record was viewed at least once had voted in 100 percent of eligible general elections since 2008. Only 32 of the registered voters searched were “low propensity” voters.

“We suspect this reflects high propensity voters discovering that their social networks consist of other high propensity voters.  This raises an interesting issue of how to find people whose networks include more low propensity voters,” Ward said.

Ward said that anecdotally the researchers have gotten positive feedback about the site and that at least a few people used it to identify and engage low propensity voters in their social network.

“One person I know who owns a store identified that one of her workers was not regularly voting, so she made an extra effort to make sure that her worker was aware that she offered paid time off to go to the polls,” Ward said.

The website does have an opt-out option for anyone who wants to remove their information. Ward said only one person chose to opt-out.

“When the Missoulian article on The Friend Vote was published, I did receive two phone calls from voters caught off guard that their voting information was public,” Connor said. “I had to explain that we do not have record regarding how they voted, only that they voted in that election. That did not resolve their concerns, but I think the element of surprise that election information is public is what truly upset them. While the ballot is secret, voting is a very public process.”

In addition to time spent creating the concept, it took a few days to clean the data and program the website. The only costs were the cost of webhosting and a subscription to a cloud database platform.  

The researchers are still considering next steps for the project.

“It seems like a tool that should be more widely available, but it needs to be targeted at people who (a) are willing to reach out to people who they know that do not vote and (b) actually know some people who do not vote regularly,” Ward said.

This is not the first time that the Missoula County elections department has partnered with the University of Montana. Back in 2016, the county and university partnered together to survey county residents on their thoughts about the elections office.

“We're fortunate to work in a university town and have a local partnership with the University of Montana. The political science department assists us with scientific research, internships and brainstorming ideas to improve election services,” Connors said. “Students offer perspectives and ideas to help us be competitive in our industry and we in return reinforce the importance of elections with an emerging voting population. It's a win-win for both of us!”