Electioneering is in full swing in Pakistan, as the country gears up for this year’s general elections. Streets in major cities are lined with campaign posters. Political rallies are being held across the country, from Lahore to Larkana.

Yet considering the precedent, a large proportion of eligible voters are likely to stay home come Election Day. According to Gallup, the turnout rate in the last general elections in 2013 was a mere 53%- significantly lower than turnouts in other South Asian countries such as India.

To address this, the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) began to auto-register everyone who applied for a computerised national identity card (CNIC) as voters last November.

Evidence from behavioral psychology shows that when faced with a set of choices, people tend to have a bias for the status quo. Actively opting in to vote requires filling out forms and remembering to submit the required documents before a given deadline-all activities that can be cognitively taxing.

By making voter registration automatic, NADRA’s new policy removes constraints like limited memory and cognitive capacity. Such policies that modify ‘default’ options to nudge people to make certain decisions have been popularised by academics like Richard Thaler, who won last year’s Nobel Prize in Economics for applying insights from behavioral science to economics.

As a result of NADRA’s simple yet effective policy change, an additional 8.1 million citizens who received their CNICs between 2013 and 2018 have been retroactively added to the voter rolls.

However, this alone is not enough to get people to the polls. Even when people have registered and intend to vote, they may not follow through on their intention. Since elections happen few and far between, voting is neither habitual nor salient in people’s memories, and is perceived as an activity that has few direct consequences for their day-to-day lives.

Implementation interventions that help concretise voting plans have been shown to be effective in reducing this psychological distance that makes people see voting as an abstraction.

For instance, an experiment during the 2008 US presidential election found that calling and asking people simple questions like what time they planned to go vote on election day, where they would be coming from, and what they would do after, helped them draw mental links between their intention to vote and specific logistics that would enable them to do so. Consequently, voter turnout was 4.1 percentage points higher for people who received these calls.

Such low-cost interventions have wide applicability in Pakistan’s context. Given the relatively high cell-phone penetration rate, large segments of the urban and rural population can be reached through phone-calls that help people articulate clear plans to get out and vote. Non-partisan civil society groups and NGOs can be instrumental in running such campaigns.

Lastly, it is important to remember that voting does not occur in a vacuum. This decision is often rooted in social norms and the behavior of one’s peers. Awareness campaigns that try to encourage people to vote by pointing to disappointingly low turnouts in the past may backfire, since they highlight non-participation as being the norm.

Instead, reframing radio and television messages to emphasise that turnout is expected to be high can be more effective, by appealing to people’s desire to engage in pro-social behavior and to comply with what others in the community are doing. This lesson is particularly relevant for rural communities in Pakistan, where informal social networks are deeply embedded in the local culture.

As the election draws closer, it may be time to abandon conventional tactics to mobilise voters and to directly tackle the psychological barriers that impede voting. Subtle changes in messaging and outreach can go a long way in helping make citizens fulfill their civic responsibility and to contribute towards building a robust democracy.


The writer is currently a public policy student at Princeton University.