Startup of the Week

Behavior Challenges to Vote-By-Mail and Their Solutions with Motivote

Every week, the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute elects a Startup of the Week (SOTW). We then invite the founders of these startups to share a blog post with our community. These posts can be inspirational, educational, or entertaining. Founders can share founding stories, resources, lessons, or anything else they want. 

This blog post was written by Jess Riegel (Wagner '18), CEO & Co-founder of Motivote.

Here’s a situation many of us may face this fall: The deadline to request your Absentee Ballot is one week away. You head to your state’s website and download the PDF request form to mail in. But your printer is out of ink, and expected delivery is one week out. You tell yourself you’ll come back and figure something out. Then all the sudden, it’s one day before the due date and you’re about to miss the deadline—despite your best intentions.


Vote-by-mail (VBM) will be a powerful tool for ensuring voters can make their voices heard during a pandemic. To set it up for success, there is no shortage of steps the government must take—from ensuring local election office capacity to shoring up the US Postal Service. But there is also a human angle: To maximize VBM participation, we need to understand and plan for how humans tend to react to unfamiliar and somewhat complicated tasks that lack clear deadlines. 


There are three behavioral breakdowns that people are likely to face, which can cause drop-off from intention to action. Here’s how we can help voters overcome these breakdowns in VBM, using what we know from the field of behavioral science. 




Breakdowns. For many people, VBM is a new and unfamiliar process. For younger people, they aren’t accustomed to communicating by mail at all. Anything new has a learning curve—and unfamiliarity can be compounded by lack of trust. Will my ballot get here on time? Will it be counted? 


Solutions. To counter unfamiliarity, tap into the power of the mere-exposure effect, or the familiarity principle. We’re more likely to prefer something when we see and hear it more. So start talking about VBM now—and not just from a policy perspective. Show examples of people requesting their ballots and walking through the process. It’s even better if these are people that are 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. 


Hassle Factors


Breakdowns. Hassle factors are seemingly trivial things that get in the way of accomplishing a task. VBM is filled with them—from trying to find the right info on state websites, to wrangling with printers, to tracking down stamps. For many people, the anticipation of dealing with these things is enough to cause them to not even want to start.


Solutions. At scale, reducing the hassle factors of VBM demands policy change, effective process design, and tech innovation. For example, while some states let voters request ballots online, most absentee voters must still print, sign, stamp, and mail. A digital transition would reduce steps and materials required. States could also eliminate hassle factors by sending every voter a ballot, instead of having them first request one.


Recognizing these are huge undertakings, entrepreneurs are responding with creative ways to reduce hassle in the system as is. lets voters in some states fill out an online form to generate an email or fax requesting a ballot from their local election official. Vote From Home 2020 enlists volunteers to mail absentee ballot request forms to voters. 


In communication choices, we can help people proactively navigate the system. Messaging should give clear directions, without jargon or assumptions about understanding. For example, differentiate between “postmarked by” vs. “received by” and lay out exactly what they mean. 


Knowing that people put off tasks that seem annoying, we can reduce the amount of details we have to process by offering clearly worded steps. For example, instead of saying a form is “due 7 days before,” give exact deadlines. Not because it’s particularly hard math, but because it’s one more to-do that causes people to drop off. We can also pull out the specific bits of actionable info needed for a task—like a number to call if your absentee ballot never got to you—using tools like VoteAmerica’s Local Election Office contact tool.




Breakdowns. Once we get voters over unfamiliarity and hassle factors, there’s still one more thing that can get in the way of acting on our intentions. It’s quite familiar to all of us, and it shows up when you’ve said you’ll clean the kitchen or start a workout routine tomorrow.


Procrastination can hit harder with VBM than voting on Election Day, since there isn’t one big moment we’re preparing for and experiencing collectively. Without a single day where 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 to do things, or deal with hiccups that might get in the way. 


Solutions. The first antidote to procrastination is clear deadlines. Studies show externally imposed deadlines increase follow-through. We can create deadlines within the VBM window, such as the newly launched Vote Early Day creating a signpost everyone can rally around. 

Then, we can go a step further and reward the early birds. Organizations that support groups of voters, like campaigns and colleges, can encourage their networks to submit ballots early in the VBM window with competitions. Break voters into teams and challenge them to get 100% of their ballots submitted before a deadline. 


In lieu of “I Voted” sticker selfies, voters can share a photo of their sealed ballot going in the mail. (Or recreate the sticker experience—Baltimore Votes is sending voters swag they can show off from home.)  Sharing selfies also taps into the most powerful nudge in voting—peer influence. We’re more likely to vote when we know others are too.


Requesting and returning your ballot early is good for voters because you can’t put off something you’ve already done. And it’s good for everyone else: avoiding a last-minute surge reduces stress on election offices to process ballots (like we saw in Wisconsin).


A second solution is helping voters make a plan—a tried-and-true turnout strategy that forces people to think through details and makes intention more real. With VBM, voters can commit to mail their ballot on a specific day with a calendar event. 


In the tool we built, Motivote, voters can track their progress through the voting journey, checking off bite-sized actions and celebrating each one. 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—these are all part of being human. With so many funding and policy shifts that must happen for VBM to take off nationwide, it’s easy to overlook the seemingly “little things” that shape the individual voter experience. But if we want to maximize participation, we must be clear about the ways that behavioral realities can thwart our best intentions and design strategies that help voters navigate and overcome behavioral breakdowns.