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Better Than Chicken: Getting the Public Engaged

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Is free chicken better than rhetoric when it comes to getting people to vote?

The blogosphere was buzzing this week over an experiment reported at a political science conference. A Utah researcher traveled door-to-door in the last election, offering two different pitches to go out and vote: a well-reasoned argument about democracy, or coupons for things like fried chicken. The coupons, perhaps not surprisingly, won.

At Public Agenda, we actually have evidence that the voting experience is better than fast food. But we also think the problems in our democracy go deeper than what happens on Election Day.

Certainly America’s low voter turnout is a longstanding problem, and troubling on a number of levels. When Public Agenda examined this in our Voting Experience Survey after the 2008 elections, we found that, despite concerns about long lines and problematic voting machines, actually going to the polls was a positive experience for most voters.

The vast majority of the voters we surveyed, 9 in 10, said they had a positive experience and that poll workers did a good job. Very few reported problems with long lines, technical problems or improper practices.

In fact, polling places got good marks compared to other places where people transact business in person. We didn’t ask about chicken specifically, but when it comes to being “very well-organized,” polling places beat out fast-food franchises by a wide margin (79 percent to 35 percent). Polling places were essentially tied with banks, and ahead of other government agencies where people tend to wait in line, like the post office and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Voting is often used as a yardstick for civic participation, and it’s important. But it’s also important to remember that the public needs to be engaged in ways beyond just voting. In between elections, we’re still making decisions as a society, and the public should be involved in those decisions, too. We’re facing a series of difficult public problems that are made much more difficult because leaders and the public frame them in different ways, and can’t reach across the divides in how they see them.

We go into elections with a public that isn’t getting much help understanding the choices they face – not the choices between candidates, necessarily, but the choices for actually solving the nation’s problems. We hear a lot more about personalities and character than options and tradeoffs. Character matters, clearly. But so does understanding the problems we face, and the options for dealing with them.

It’s that challenge – laying out the options in a way that people can understand, and helping people climb the “learning curve” they face – that trips the nation up between elections, when the real governing happens. And that’s not a problem that can be solved by voting people out of office. Or free chicken.


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