If you’re a millennial, there’s a very good chance you didn’t vote in the midterm election. The youngest voters, between ages 18 and 24, made up only 6 percent of the votes cast on November 4. It’s nothing new–youth voter turnout has been notoriously low in midterm elections for decades, and expensive campaigns from organizations like Rock the Vote haven’t really helped. Maybe it’s time to try something new, and that something new might as well be free beer.
In a recent city election in Toronto, a creative agency decided to throw parties at three local bars on election night–and handed out free beers to anyone who voted.
“What we’ve found is that so much of the messaging and campaigning trying to get young people to vote just doesn’t work,” says Phillip Haid, co-founder and CEO of Public Inc., the agency that led the campaign (and occasional Co.Exist contributor). “The same old messages–it’s your civic duty, you need to have a say–don’t move the needle on the issue, and just saying the same things louder doesn’t help.”
Instead, the team wanted to try something completely different. “We had to give them a reason to do it,” Haid says. “And we thought, what’s more motivating than free beer? If everyone loves an incentive, what if we used a positive nudge, a reward, to get young people to vote?”
Once people try voting, they may be more likely to make it a habit. “Generally speaking, young people in particular, I think they haven’t exercised the muscle of voting,” Haid says. “It’s not that they’re not civically engaged–they’re highly engaged. But they’re not choosing to do it through traditional forms of engagement like voting…that’s why we wanted to test another incentive.”
In the Toronto experiment, the team partnered with a local brewery to make a custom beer for the occasion (named “Ballot”), and then plastered one district with posters and stickers inviting voters to a party after polls closed. While it’s hard to tell exactly how many voters were tempted by the beer, overall voter turnout in the district did go up 10% compared to the last election.
Anecdotally, the team saw some clear examples that the campaign had worked. “At polling stations, we were nearby, pointing people to different pubs after they voted,” says Haid. “It did motivate people. One guy didn’t have his voting card, and he said he’d go home and get it so he could go to the party.”
Public hopes to hold similar campaigns in the future, all aimed at young voters (In Louisiana, Senator Mary Landrieu tried something similar, assisting a young man with a keg stand at a party). If people don’t vote when they’re young, Haid says, they may not ever start. “There’s all kinds of data to show that if you don’t vote early, later on in life, the likelihood of you voting is much less,” he explains.
Ultimately, Haid thinks that election day should become a celebration. “When you go vote, it’s a solitary action,” he says. “So I’ve been saying for years in Canada on election day, it should be a total party. It should be a day when there’s no work and no school and get people to really celebrate it.”