By now you’ve probably realized I’m a big fan of former President Obama. Yes, I agreed with his stances on many issues, but it wasn’t just his policies that led me to vote for him twice. There was a lot to admire about his leadership style. One of his qualities that especially stood out, particularly in today’s environment, was his temperament. He didn’t earn the moniker “No Drama Obama” for nothing. Those who have worked with him and even Obama himself often noted his careful deliberative style. No one could ever accuse President Obama of “thinking from his gut”. Many of his detractors and even some supporters found his approach over-analytical. I found it comforting. But it wasn’t only that. President Obama even planned out how he would make decisions. Take this simple example from an interview he once gave to Vanity Fair:
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
By limiting choices he was required to make on inconsequential matters, Obama was better able to focus on the important things. There is actually a name for this type of analysis and there are people who actually spend their time studying it. It’s called “choice architecture” or the concept that decisions we make are a function of the environment we’re in. One of those people who has made his career looking at choice architecture is Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. He says without our realizing it, many decisions are made for us by design. Here’s an example Ariely likes to use to emphasize the point:
“this is one of my favorite plots in social sciences. And these are different countries in Europe. And you basically see two types of countries - countries on the right, that seems to be giving a lot, and countries on the left, that seems to be giving very little, or, you know, not much less. The question is, why? Why do some countries give a lot and some countries give a little? When you ask people this question, they usually think that it has to be something about culture, right? How much do you care about people? Giving your organs to somebody else is probably about how much you care about society, or maybe 'cause about religion. But if you look at this plot, you could see that countries that we think about as very similar actually exhibit very different behavior.
For example, Sweden is all the way on the right. And Denmark, that we think is culturally very similar, is all the way on the left. Germany's on the left, and Austria is on the right. The Netherlands is on the left, and Belgium is on the right. And by the way, the Netherlands is an interesting story. You see the Netherlands is kind of the biggest of the small group. Turns out that they got the 28 percent after mailing every household in the country a letter begging people to join this organ donation program. Right, so you know the expression, begging only gets you so far. It's 28 percent in organ donation.
But whatever the countries on the right are doing, they're doing a much better job than begging. So what are they doing? Turns out, the secret has to do with the form at the DMV. And here's the story. The countries on the left have a form at the DMV that looks something like this. Check the box below if you want to participate in the organ donor program. And what happens? People don't check, and they don't join. The countries on the right, the one that give a lot, have a slightly different form. It says check the box below if you don't want to participate. Interestingly enough, when people get this they, again, don't check, but now they join...”
Now I realize that many conservatives’ heads are going to explode at the mere thought of my next statement, but this led me and apparently many other more qualified people to think - what if voter registration wasn’t a choice? What if it were something we had to opt out of rather than make a conscious effort to do? What would be the results?
Well to some extent we can answer that question, because over a dozen states in our union are already doing it. It’s called Automatic Voter Registration (AVR), and places such as Vermont, California, and New Jersey have put some form of it in place. One way AVR is implemented is to automatically register an individual to vote when said person interacts with a government agency like the DMV, for example. Just like the model described by Dan Ariely with European organ donorship, citizens have to decide to opt out of voter registration as opposed to opting in. It’s a convenient and simple solution to something that is a perennial problem in our democracy-getting people registered. But it’s more than that. AVR saves money by consolidating where states keep records and keeps voter information secure and up to date. States that have active AVR are seeing positive results. Common Cause, which has launched a nationwide voter reform campaign, cites several examples:
In Illinois, the state Board of Elections recently announced that 20,000 people have updated their voter registration or registered to vote for the first time in just the first three weeks since implementing the AVR program.
In Vermont, 12,344 voter registrations were processed or updated at the DMV in the first six months of the program in 2017. This is compared to 7,626 registrations processed during the same time period without AVR in 2016, which is significant since 2016 was an election year and 2017 was not.
In a democracy voting is the most basic way for the public to express their opinions. It shouldn’t be complicated or difficult. It’s how we choose who will lead us and be our voice in the halls of power. Like President Obama our mental energy should be spent on more important things like deciding who will the best candidate for the job.
posted by Amy Levengood
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