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How Behavioral Insights Can Nudge Voter Turnout in Bangladesh

January 20, 2016

By Peter Yates

On Dec. 30, 2015, Bangladesh held its first-ever local-level elections in which political parties were able to nominate and field their own candidates for mayoral positions. Amid sporadic irregularities, millions lined up to vote in 234 municipalities across the country. While the election commission has yet to release official results, it appears that the governing Awami League party has had a significant victory, claiming 177 mayoral posts, while the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the opposition party that boycotted the 2014 elections, has secured only 22 posts.

The Election Working Group (EWG), a non-partisan election observation network, stated in its preliminary assessment of the elections that “…despite a significant number of electoral incidences of varying severity recorded on Election Day, most voters were able to employ their franchise and vote according to their own will.”

On December 30, millions of voters headed to the polls to elect new local leaders in 234 municipalities across Bangladesh. Here, citizen election observers provide election updates in real-time from this operations room.

On December 30, millions of voters headed to the polls to elect new local leaders in 234 municipalities across Bangladesh. Here, citizen election observers provide election updates in real-time from this operations room.

Despite a capable election commission, the quality of elections in Bangladesh since its return to democracy in 1991 has varied greatly, with political interference and violence a regular occurrence during election periods. Following the well-run and inclusive 2008 Parliamentary Elections, the most recent 2014 Parliamentary Elections saw voting occur in only half of constituencies due to a boycott by the opposition coalition, and recently held City Corporation and Upazila Elections have highlighted the prevalence of systematic fraud and organized violence in the campaign periods and on Election Day. Despite this downward trend, last month’s elections did see a marked improvement, with violence and fraud restricted to a relatively small percentage of polling stations.

Throughout this uneven experience, Bangladesh’s civil society has played an important role in educating citizens in election matters, encouraging civic participation, and monitoring the quality of the electoral process. Voter turnout has been one area that has been negatively affected by the volatile political environment that has surrounded recent elections, and is a key area where civil society has played an active role. The Asia Foundation has been active in supporting such efforts by civil society groups engaged in elections for over 25 years.

The appearance of colorful posters, banners, and flyers, emblazoned with friendly cartoon characters encouraging citizens to vote in upcoming elections, is a common occurrence on the dusty and crowded streets of Bangladesh. Stuck to power poles and strung between telecom cables, these civic education materials are usually created and distributed by the many civil society groups in Bangladesh.

Despite their widespread use, these traditional techniques have certain weaknesses. First, it is difficult to evaluate whether such attempts have any actual impact on voter turnout, and if so, to what degree. Second, there are significant logistical efforts involved: the transportation alone of hundreds of thousands of posters and flyers is a significant undertaking, and their distribution around rural towns and villages an even greater burden. Third, due to the long lead times in production and distribution, these efforts suffer from a lack of flexibility and aren’t easily responsive to the volatile political environment of Bangladesh. The EWG discovered this in the lead up to the 2014 Parliamentary Elections, when the opposition coalition declared that they would boycott the elections and the very act of encouraging people to vote was perceived as a political statement in support of the government. As a result, hundreds of thousands of posters and flyers printed by the EWG couldn’t be distributed and had to be destroyed.

This experience provided a significant learning experience for the EWG and The Asia Foundation’s own work in voter education. Since then, the Foundation has been researching new approaches in our civic education initiatives with the goal of creating more flexible, tailored, and most importantly, quantifiably effective approaches.

Prior to these recent elections, we began a new programmatic approach that applies behavioral insights to voter turnout efforts. Behavioral insights draw on the behavioral sciences to understand and influence choices in decision-making. By focusing on the social, cognitive, and emotional behavior of individuals, it suggests that subtle changes to the way decisions are framed and communicated can have big impacts on behavior. Popularized by the 2008 book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, governments around the world have been applying its approaches, with “nudge units” now set up in the White House and on Downing Street in the UK. The approach’s relevance to international development is increasingly recognized – in its 2015 World Development Report, the World Bank argues that development policies based on new insights into how people actually think and make decisions will help governments and civil society more readily tackle such challenges.

We saw relevance and opportunity for the application of behavioral insights to the goal of inclusive elections, and in partnership with EWG began to design voter turnout activities informed by this approach.

Drawing on the idea that to encourage a behavior, you need to make it easy, timely, social, and attractive, in late 2015 we began supporting EWG to design a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to be conducted during the Municipal Elections to encourage voter turnout. EWG engaged a telecom company to deliver a combination of SMS and robocalls to potential voters in selected municipalities the day before and on the morning of the election. Variation in treatments to different allocated groups included the medium of communication (SMS or robocalls), the type of message conveyed (a simple reminder or an appeal to civic duty), and the timing of the communication (the day before or morning of Election Day). The day after the election, all participants, including those in a control group who received no communication prior to or on Election Day, received a robocall asking them if they had voted and allowed participants to respond by pressing a corresponding number.

It is hoped that once the RCT is complete, it will provide guidance as to which of the approaches had the greatest effect on voter turnout. Does reminding citizens to vote increase their likelihood of voting? Is a simple SMS reminder the day before an election as effective as a robocall which appeals to a citizen’s civic duty and encourages them to go to the polling station with friends or family? Does it matter whether the communication occurs on Election Day or the day before? Evidence from behavioral insights suggests that all of these things can make a difference to how people make their decisions.

With parliamentary elections slated for 2019, Bangladesh is likely to continue to face challenges to the quality and integrity of its electoral processes due to its polarized politics and democratic culture. As a result, the pursuit of inclusiveness and broad participation will remain an integral component of efforts to strengthen electoral quality. Applying behavioral insights and employing rigorous evaluation techniques could prove critical in these efforts.

Peter Yates is director of the The Asia Foundation’s Election Program in Bangladesh. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on twitter @yatespj. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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