From Huffington Post
It’s well known that mobile phones are changing every day life in the developing world — particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The spread of cell phones coupled with the ease and efficiency of text messaging helps people save, spend, and investtheir money more wisely. Text messages and mobile apps improve health outcomes by teaching people about nutrition and reminding patients to take their medication. They also further education by helping students learn more effectively through virtual tutoring.
We now have evidence that text messages improve civic engagement in emerging countries by encouraging people to vote. A recent study I conducted in Kenya with Benjamin Marx, an economist at MIT, and Vincent Pons, of Harvard Business School, found that get-out-the-vote text messages increased Election Day turnout by as much as 2 percentage points. This increased participation in democracy comes with a condition, however. If voters perceive that elections aren’t free and fair, they lose trust. Put another way: when voters willingly place their faith in electoral institutions — the very essence of voting — those institutions had better make good on their promises.
Democracy in the developing world is a fragile thing. Corruption and fraud are common features of elections and understandably, voters feel disillusioned and angry. In Kenya’s 2007 election, that anger turned to bloodshed. After Kenya’s election commission ignored evidence of vote rigging that kept the ruling government in power, the country erupted into violence and hundreds of people were killed.
The following year, Kenya’s government worked to rebuild trust. The country adopted political reforms and created a new constitution. It also replaced its old electoral commission with a new one: the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), tasked with creating a new register of voters across the country. Before the 2013 election, the IEBC purchased biometric voter registration kits, based on fingerprint technology, to mitigate identification issues at polling stations.
To study the effects of text messages on people’s voting behavior, we partnered with IEBC to conduct an experiment. In the six days leading up to the election, we sent eleven million texts to slightly less than two million prospective voters across Kenya. The messages were intended to rally voters and provided either basic encouragements to vote, background on the changes in the elective positions that people could vote for, or information on the electoral commission itself. The IEBC was under intense public scrutiny during the electoral period. The text messages were its way of reaching out to voters in a gesture of honesty and openness.
Read the full post at The Huffington Post.
Tavneet Suri is an Associate Professor of Applied Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management.