Registering to Vote and the Fresh Start Effect

By Monica Crane Childers

When was the last time you really thought about going to the gym? Or dieting? Or planting a garden? According to recent research, you’re more likely to pursue these goals when you hit a milestone, such as the beginning of a new year or your birthday.

This phenomenon, known as the Fresh Start Effect, explains our natural tendency to commit to things at a certain time. A paper published by researchers at the Wharton and Harvard business schools finds that people are “more likely to tackle their goals immediately following salient temporal landmarks,” like the beginning of a season. Essentially, the Fresh Start Effect helps people frame an obstacle or decision in their brain by tying it to a date (e.g. - a new week, month, year, or semester; a birthday; a holiday).

Sometimes, these landmarks are suggested by organizations that want you to associate a particular time of year with a specific cause. Your local public broadcasting and radio stations probably conduct a pledge drive at the same time each year. Consider the effectiveness of annual fundraising telethons that take place over holidays like Labor Day weekend. These are prime examples of kicking-off year-long efforts with a well-timed annual event.

We think the same philosophy can be applied to oft-neglected civic duties. While voter registration should be encouraged all year long, you might consider utilizing the Fresh Start Effect to create a temporal landmark for your voters to remember to register (or update their registration) at a certain time.

Pick a date each year, such as July 4th or Constitution Day, and create the expectation, through outreach and coordinated events, that voters will register or update their registration that time each year. Yearly registration drives could also lead up to, or follow, Memorial Day, honoring the sacrifice of the fallen by remembering to perform a civic duty.

Whatever shape your voter registration efforts take, consider using the Fresh Start Effect to focus the attention of your voters and to create a landmark in their mind.  A friendly reminder at the appropriate time might be just the push voters need! And if that reminder comes at the beginning of a natural cycle, you may just find yourself the beneficiary of accurate and up-to-date voter registration records thanks to the Fresh Start Effect!