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How Not to Be an Asshole About the Election at Work

Does vote-shaming actually work? Not with your coworkers, who are just going to hate you more for your unsolicited advice

This may seem like a trick question, but it’s not: Is there a way to shame people into voting without being an asshole?

On Election Day 2018, the stakes are high: A blue wave (of mutilation) in the House could set impeachment proceedings into motion and install governors in swing states needed to kill a second Trump shocker come 2020. While the Senate is unlikely to shift, it’s possible the House will turn blue, and governors in swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida, too, will directly affect the 2020 election.

This is what’s up for grabs:

  • 435 House seats (Dems need just 23 to take control)
  • 35 Senate seats (of the 100 seats total, Dems only have 26)
  • 36 state governors (23 have Republican incumbents)

So, as you’ve heard over and over, your vote matters. Trouble is, not everyone cares, or they’re ambivalent about choosing between two disappointing candidates, or disenchanted by a system rigged to discourage them, or physically unable to wait in hours-long lines. So: Is it your duty to coerce strangers, especially ones who are working for or serving you? (“Just told a bellhop to vote,” wrote comedian Billy Eichner in a now-deleted tweet.)

What about withholding sex?

And — this is more relevant than ever — how do you handle voting pressure in the office? Especially if your coworkers are posting about how repugnant it is not to vote?

First is the question of whether vote shaming even works. Will peer pressure inspire enough people to get in line and get that shit done? And even if it does, does that make it okay? Does the end really justify the means?

There is some evidence that vote shaming works, at least by mail. In one 2006 study of Michigan voters, researchers found that when citizens were sent mailers encouraging them to vote and calling them out for not voting in the past, it increased voter turnout by 6.3 percent. (Such tactics also succeed in pissing people off.)

And today, voter shaming is a little easier: Natasha Singer at the New York Times just reported on two new apps that identify non-voters in your office or friend group and help you script messages letting them know you know.

But then, problems pop up. One is, of course, whether you can ethically use something like shame to make people do what you think is right. Just because shaming works sometimes doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause damage to the relationship, especially if it’s your coworker, who’s more likely to judge you without saying anything. Behavioral experts suggest keying in to empathy instead, which would mean that if you find out a friend you know isn’t voting, all you can do is ask why, and see if there’s anything you can do to help them vote or change their mind after understanding where they’re coming from.

But in the office? Forget it. Pestering people at work about voting doesn’t work. In some research, the more you try to sway someone to your point of view — particularly when it’s an unsolicited political view (there are rarely any solicited political views) — the more you push them to the opposite side of the spectrum.

Furthermore, public voting records don’t really work how you think they do. You can’t just call up and find out if an individual voted. An app might tell you that someone did or didn’t vote, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s accurate, or that they voted how you think. (Voter rolls take months to update, and can contain incorrect information; a “yes” may mean they voted in one election and not another, or for one part of the ballot but not another.) And even if they did correctly vote, you still don’t know how they voted; all you’d get is a yes or no and the party affiliation, if it’s listed. So you may be shaming someone who doesn’t deserve the shaming, for instance, or not shaming someone you think voted who didn’t vote how you’d have liked.

Three, the reasons people don’t vote may not warrant your righteous indignation, and this is probably the biggest reason not to spray a firehose of shame at your coworkers. If recent midterm turnout is a predictor, some six out of 10 eligible voters may be no-shows tomorrow, according to CNN. Why? Apathy, being too busy, and voting rules that make it difficult to get registered are the most oft-cited reasons for not voting.

Apathy seems like a slam-dunk, ripe for some shaming, but it’s not always cynical, privileged indifference: Many young people, who typically produce lower voter turnout, are in a constant flux of instability and face real obstacles to voting. As Jamelle Bouie writes at Slate, “You’re less likely to have a permanent address, less likely to have secure and flexible employment, less likely to have the confidence to participate in the political process.”

Some people certainly believe their vote doesn’t matter. Others simply can’t get registered regardless. Being a former felon makes it difficult to get voting rights restored. Some 34 states require IDs to cast the ballot. Some folks think they’re registered, only to find out they’ve been purged from voting rolls and now it’s too late. Others don’t realize the time constraints on mailing in a ballot or getting registered in time. Not everyone gets the day off to vote. Some people have to work.

“They’re working several jobs, they’re low-income, they’re low-education, they’re younger and they decide the costs are too high for them,” a political scientist told NPR on why many people don’t vote. Typically, the people who don’t vote are more likely to be Hispanic, poor, young or Asian-American.

All this is to say nothing of the fact that voter suppression is real, too. Georgia, North Dakota and North Carolina are all in the spotlight for messing with the voting rights of blacks, Native Americans and other minorities using a variety of tactics. They include closing early polling places (where you have to go if you have to work a strictly regimented set of hours), tossing out or placing holds on voters over technicalities like missing hyphens in their names, and preventing people with P.O. boxes instead of residential addresses from voting, such as Native Americans who live on reservations.

There are even still more nuanced reasons for not voting than this. But in a sense, that’s beside the point.

If you’re tempted to vote-shame, maybe consider who you’re shaming and why they might not be voting. Maybe consider that a better approach would be understanding that first, then offering encouragement and also any help.

Think about how differently even this plea sounds:

Than this self-righteous pap:

Companies can help employees vote by giving them time off to do so, and by helping employees figure out where to vote and how and when to register. And by letting them know it’s okay for them to go vote.

Research shows that holding election day festivals near polling places increase turnout. Organizing voter registration drives is another great way to reach underrepresented groups who need help getting set up to vote, and who are more likely to vote if they get help registering.

Because if you’re the person screaming that anyone who doesn’t vote doesn’t get to complain:

Then you should apply that to yourself: If you don’t do everything to help people vote who have trouble doing so, then you don’t get to complain about people who don’t vote.