Here’s a familiar moment of elections seasons of yonder: the deadline to ask for an absentee ballot is one week away.

You download the PDF from your state’s website and then [fill in life’s many hiccups: the printer is out of ink, the dog barks, an incoming phone call]. You make a mental note to return and, despite your best intentions, the deadline comes and goes. 

Vote-by-mail is a powerful tool to ensure voters cast their ballots, especially with the neverending COVID pandemic. To maximize the use of mail-in ballots, make a plan to get ahead of varied state deadlines and requirements for mail-in ballots. 

Unfamiliarity, hassle factors, and procrastination: these are labels for three behavioral breakdowns that keep people from fulfilling goals from working out to casting a vote. They cause a drop-off between having an intention to do something and actually taking action.

Here’s how we help voters overcome vote-by-mail breakdowns by applying tactics of behavioral science.

1. Address the Unfamiliar By Discussing Early Voting Often

For many, absentee voting is a new and unfamiliar process. Younger people aren’t accustomed to communicating by mail, period. Plus: anything new has a learning curve and unfamiliarity is compounded by a lack of earned trust. Will my ballot get here on time? Will it be counted?

Here is where we tap into the familiarity principle: we’re more likely to prefer something when we see and hear it more often.
Election administrators, community advocates, voting organizers, and businesses need to begin discussing voting by mail now. Provide resources, reminders, and answers to questions regarding state-by-state guidelines to vote by mail. Show examples of people requesting ballots and walk through the process — preferably community members and recognized figures, in order to build trust.

Thanks to the power of social norming, people are more likely to do something when they think others are doing it too.

2. Overcoming Hassle of Early Voting With Reminders and Resources

Hassle Factors are seemingly trivial speedbumps that ultimately get in the way of accomplishing a task. From trying to find the right information on state websites to tracking down stamps, vote-by-mail is filled with them. For many voters, the anticipation of addressing these hassle factors often keeps them from beginning the process.

Reducing hassle factors of vote-by-mail demands policy change, effective process design, and technological innovation. For example, while some states let voters request ballots online, most absentee voters must still print, sign, stamp, and mail their completed ballots. A digital transition would reduce the steps and materials required. States could also limit hassle factors by sending every voter a ballot, not waiting for them to ask.

Recognizing these are huge undertakings, entrepreneurs are responding with creative ways to reduce current hassles. lets voters in some states fill out an online form for requesting a ballot from the proper local election official. Vote From Home 2020 enlists volunteers to mail absentee request forms to voters. And platforms like Motivote help employers, school systems, and organizations provide information and resources through one single platform. 

And voters can get bits of actionable information needed to complete a task — the number to call if your requested absentee ballot never arrives — using tools like VoteAmerica’s election office locator.

3. Beat Voting Procrastination with Early Bird Deadlines and Peer Influence

Procrastination is a foe for most of us. When it comes to waking up, eating healthy, and voting: tomorrow always feels like the best day to begin. Without a single Election Day when voting is a priority, it’s easy to put it off. In behavioral economics, the “planning fallacy” tells us we’re overly optimistic about our ability to finish tasks on time. We don’t leave ourselves enough time for the work, or the hiccups that might get in the way.

The first antidote to beating procrastination: setting a clear time limit. It turns out, external deadlines increase follow-through. Vote Early Day creates a much-needed ‘finish line’ for people to cross well before the actual cutoff for mail-in ballots. 

Rewarding early birds is another effective strategy to combating procrastination. Campaigns, companies, and colleges create voting teams and use competitions to encourage ballot returns sooner rather than later. Instead of “I Voted” sticker selfies, schools and politicians can encourage the sharing of photos of sealed ballot envelopes going in the mail — or emulate the Baltimore Votes idea of sending swag for voters to show off.

This sharing also taps into the most powerful nudge in voting: peer influence. We’re more likely to vote when we know others are, too. Helping voters make a plan is another tried-and-true strategy for getting out the vote because it forces people to think through details and makes intention more real.

With Motivote, voters can track their progress through the voting journey, check off bite-sized actions, and celebrate each other. The “endowed progress effect” tells us we’re more likely to achieve a goal if we feel we’ve already made progress toward achieving it. Helping voters see where they are and what comes next increases follow-through.

Avoiding new things, getting discouraged by hassles, and putting off tasks that seem annoying are all part of being human. And it’s easy to overlook the seemingly “little things” that shape each voter experience. But if we want to maximize participation this November, we must be clear about the ways behavioral realities can thwart our best intentions, then design strategies for voters to overcome behavioral breakdowns.