I’ve been interested in electoral politics since I was 9 or 10 years old. I’m nowhere near an expert, but I enjoy listening to radio shows, reading articles, and discussing political trends and theories with friends. I’ve learned that being a politically-engaged citizen requires a good deal of work and dedication—and that the majority of us in the U.S. (including me and most people I know) are vastly under-committed and under-participating.
Existing data about American engagement in elections underscores how under-involved we are in our own political reality, especially compared to the electorate of other developed democratic nations. According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center comparing U.S. electoral participation to other advanced democracies: “Looking at the most recent nationwide election in each OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] nation, the U.S. placed 26th out of 32.” That’s the bottom 10%. Not great, America.
Obviously, this is a huge problem for the U.S., the place where we Americans consider the birthplace of democracy. When only a minority of the populous participates in electing those who govern us, we start to resemble an oligarchy, inequality tends to worsen and eventually becomes cemented into society.
I won’t pretend to know the solution to fixing this enormously complex problem. If the solution was easy enough for a political amateur hobbyist to uncover, I think our political engagement would look very different. But my constant immersion in Jobs to be Done theory and methodology at Highland over the past few years has caused me to think differently about the problem than I had ever thought before.
Specifically, I’ve been noticing the potentially problematic nature of how we talk about the electorate in terms of demographic segments (for example, college-educated, working-class, Black, Latinx, young people) and how we use these demographic commonalities to predict how people are likely to act, whether that be how they vote, who they vote for, or whether they vote at all.
As digital product consultants, it's our job to help clients understand the social, emotional, and functional jobs their customers are hiring products and services for, in order to make progress in their lives. What if electoral politics harnessed that same sense of purpose?
Understanding Jobs to be Done
Jobs to be Done (JTBD), developed by Clay Christensen, is a theory about what motivates people to act, specifically, what causes them to “hire” a new product or service. A major part of the JTBD theory is the idea that demographic data about one’s gender, race, age, even habits won’t be helpful in predicting people’s behavior. As opposed to classic marketing strategy, JTBD is a methodology that segments customers by motivation (or Job), not demographics. In his book “Competing Against Luck,” Christensen’s makes the point clear and concise:
“The fact that you’re 18 to 35 years old with a college degree does not cause you to buy a product. It may be correlated with the decision, but it doesn’t cause it.”
Competing Against Luck
In other words, to address the voting problem (actually, the lack of voting problem), we need to start by understanding what causes people to “hire” voting, and what causes them to stay home, or whatever they’re doing while they’re not voting. Once the Jobs start to become clear (e.g. Help me take full responsibility for the duties I have as a citizen of this country), then we can start to also understand the forces acting on an individual with that Job. Forces can either help move individuals toward trying a thing to achieve their Job, or they can present obstacles to trying a thing to achieve their Job. These are progress-making and progress-hindering forces.
Once the motivation (or the Job) and the forces behind voting are understood, changes can be made to make voting more attractive than staying home. One way to do this would be to manufacture new forces. For example, if voting were made compulsory in the U.S., then a progress-making force could be the desire to avoid unnecessary legal fees. According to Pew, “Some countries, about 27 of them, make voting compulsory. In Australia, all citizens who are of voting age are required to vote, and if they fail to do so, they face fines.
Other countries only require voting for certain demographics of people and make it voluntary for others. For example, in Ecuador, only literate citizens between 18 and 65 are required to vote; those over 65 or who are not literate are not required. Other developed democracies do it — we might as well place it in the pile of possible solutions.
Don’t Start With Demographics: Use “Jobs To Be Done” to Understand Your Customers First
Instead of starting with demographics, what a business strategist should identify first are the social, emotional, and physical jobs your potential customers are hiring your product or service to do.
Eliminating Progress-Hindering Forces
I wouldn’t recommend the route of forcing folks to vote and penalizing them when they don’t participate. I tend to believe that all people are doing the best they can given their circumstances, and for that reason, my preference is typically carrot over the stick (though some economists believe both are necessary for behavior change).
I think it would be more effective if the focus were placed on addressing some of the progress-hindering forces that stand in the way of voters’ participation. For example, perhaps we could eliminate — or significantly reduce—the huge progress-hindering force of other responsibilities that compete with voting, namely, having to go work. Again, according to the Pew Research Center, of the thirty-six nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. is one of nine that votes on a weekday, and one of seven that doesn’t designate election day a national holiday.”
This year, with a raging pandemic as the backdrop for a historic Presidential race, voters are tasked with more difficult decisions than ever, including whether to vote early, vote by mail, or vote in person on Election Day. It would be helpful if they didn’t have to navigate missing work, too.
One thing is clear: if we want to increase voter turnout, we can’t just rely on demographics. We need to understand what Jobs are at stake, what motivates people to vote, and what keeps them at home.