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Does Free Food (and Other Election Festivities) Increase Voter Turnout?

Evidence suggests that a hot meal and entertainment can get more people in line

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19th century realist painting showing several men milling around.
An 1846 painting by George Caleb Bingham shows the social activity that voting used to be, drinks and all.

As voter turnout has declined over the decades, campaigns and advocates have taken on a variety of get-out-the-vote initiatives, from phone banking to canvassing to voter registration drives. But what if the voting process itself — that is, the experience of waiting in line for hours, often without food, water, or bathroom access — could be improved, or even made celebratory? In recent elections, several groups — including World Central Kitchen’s Chefs for the Polls and the popular Pizza to the Polls — have organized concerted food-to-polls efforts to nourish the morale (and bodies) of people at polling places. Anecdotally, it seems to be working. And turns out, there is evidence that election festivals, featuring attractions like food, music, and games, can actually draw more voters to the polls.

Historically, Election Day was seen as “a public holiday, involving plenty of stumping, debating, and parading,” Jill Lepore writes in a 2008 New Yorker article about how Americans used to vote. Up until the late 19th century, elections were seen as a big social activity: Voters came to enjoy “free-flowing whisky,” entertainment, and the kind of exposure promised by an event in which “you’re there to be seen,” says Donald P. Green, a political science professor at Columbia University and the co-author of Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout.

According to Green, the advent of the secret ballot, as well as the 75-foot rule — which prohibits electioneering close to where people cast their ballots — set in motion a decline in voter turnout. Turnouts that had been in the 70, 75, and even 80 percent range fell steadily into what it is now: around 55 percent, give or take.

In 2005 to 2006, and again from 2016 to 2018, Green and a team of collaborators — including, in the recent elections, the nonprofit Civic Nation’s #VoteTogether initiative — studied the effects of poll parties on voter turnout using randomized experiments held in different geographic areas, across a range of socioeconomic and ethnic profiles. They held festivals near neighborhood polling sites during early voting or on Election Day. The events, which were advertised beforehand, took the form of neighborhood block parties, barbecues, or marches to the polls, and included food, family-friendly entertainment, dance troupes, face painting, and games, per Green.

The researchers saw an impact: an average turnout increase of 2 percentage points (even taking into consideration the fact that rain affected many of the outdoor events). The festivals had an even bigger impact at early voting sites and in high-profile races, such as the 2016 presidential election. Furthermore, the findings appeared to show that festivals held one year had a “persistent effect” on turnout in subsequent elections, suggesting that there could be long-term habit-forming effects.

Key to the turnout is community outreach, targeting people who might have otherwise sat out the election. Spreading word of the poll celebrations requires postering, canvassing, and phone banking, similar to other get-out-the-vote initiatives. But to Green, the results seem clear: the festivals do draw people, including potential voters.

The role that food plays in that varies, depending on the setting. In Green’s 2005 to 2006 trials, in more affluent areas, food was a “bonus,” but not necessarily the major feature. However, in lower-income environments — which are often more impacted by voter suppression, and thus, long lines at the polls — the food attracted bigger crowds. Green identifies two possible reasons: one being the value of a guaranteed meal; the other, the social aspect of an event with food, fun, and lots of people.

He recalls one festival, held in a financially depressed area, in which free burgers drew large numbers of kids and their parents — and then the community made the event their own. Out of nowhere, he says, a spontaneous dance contest began, with the DJ playing music and egging dancers on. “It was kind of a surreal thing … Everybody gave $1, I gave $1, and the winner got the money. It was amazing how it sprang out of nowhere with no planning.”

If it weren’t for the COVID-19 crisis, according to Green, maybe there would be more election festivals this year. But while full-blown parties might not be possible during the pandemic, at least some elements of those celebrations will persist, particularly in the form of free food at many polling locations. And those efforts, like the previous election festival experiments, could have longer-lasting effects beyond just this election cycle.

“In a very unpleasant waiting experience, especially in a moment in history where no one’s particularly got the patience to wait for anything, if you have to wait for two hours, and you have a burger, then it’s more palatable, literally and figuratively,” says Green. “The response might be, ‘Wow, they’re actually kind of taking care of us citizens.’”

Poll parties won’t fix voter suppression, and they aren’t a replacement for the many ways the government could increase voter accessibility, including automatic voter registration, same-day or online registration, increasing early voting, and restoring rights for currently and formerly incarcerated people. But, at the very least, free food, music, games, and other festivities are easy first steps to making voting feel a little less like a chore.

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