A Political “Do Not Call” List

Dean Karlan has just published a cool op-ed in the Financial Times making the case for voting-commitment contracts.

(Disclosure and shameless plug: Dean and I are both co-founders of stickK.com, the free commitment service where anyone can make a binding commitment to vote on November 4th.) As Dean describes:

StickK can verify (using publicly available data) whether people fulfill their commitment to vote. If they do not, StickK e-mails their friends or charges their credit card as punishment for failure. If money, individuals choose where the money gets sent; but most choose to send it to a charity (chosen by stickK, so the individual gets no specific pleasure from knowing where the money goes), or even harsher, to an “anti charity,” a politically polarizing charity such as the Bill Clinton Presidential Library or the George W. Bush Presidential Library.

When Dean first pitched the idea, I though it was neat but figured there wouldn’t be much demand. The hard-core voters don’t need a commitment contract to help them vote; and the hard-core nonvoters don’t want help in the first place.

I thought the commitment contracts would only be attractive to the smaller set of people who want to vote, but know they will have trouble getting around to pulling the lever when election day actually comes.

But Dean has now convinced me that there are two good reasons for hard-core voters to sign commitment contracts: Committing will both a) reduce the amount you are hassled and b) enrich the political party that you support. Dean explains:

How can this solve the problem of organizations and campaigns relentlessly calling homes to get people to vote?

Imagine all agreed to honor a “do not call those who have made commitments” list. Organizations would love this: they would know that these are individuals truly committed to voting, so any phone call or visit to them is wasted money. People would love it: fewer harassing phone calls and doorbell rings.

And what helps you is likely to help your candidates as well.

Making a credible commitment to vote is like making a contribution to the candidate for whom you intend to vote.

Those annoying cards and letters that you don’t need eat up the real resources of the candidates. Increasingly, candidates can predict how you are going to vote. After you sign a commitment contract, these candidates don’t need to waste money and time making sure that you’re going to the polls; they can spend that money on those who are still at risk of not showing up (or voting for the wrong candidate).

Of course, this still needs a bit more saliency among voters to really take off. But if a large enough percentage of voters signed these contracts, even some of the hard-core nonvoters might change their minds — if only to avoid the concentrated pestering that will be directed at them.

At a time when many of us are deluged with repetitive and unwanted political telemarketing calls, anything that emulates a “do not call” list is worth considering.


I'm already on a political do-not-call list. I only have a cell phone.

Though, and this is troubling, I've been getting a few robo-calls recently, first for that car warranty scam and now for someone claiming to sell security systems. I fear a slippery slope that eventually results in live human telemarketers, survey takers, and various political types.

Nick M.

@ #2:

They already do that. They look at what ballot you pulled in the primary. In Illinois that's easy info to get, I'm not sure about other states.

Currently candidates generally focus their efforts on getting supporters out to vote or convincing undecided voters to vote for them. I think this idea would shift the focus to what #3 said.

Deb Morrissey

As seen on a friend's blog lately, when she complained about political calls:

"If I had to guess, it would be that loophole exists because the Registry is maintained and enforced by the government, and having the government suppress political speech is a no-no."

A very good point.

Now, I would like a list that exempts me from calls made by a machine/computer. If you don't care enough to have a person talk to me, I don't want to hear from you. Your recorded message is only going to prejudice me against your candidate.


Apathetic people should not vote.

Low voter turn-out indicates a complacent populace who are content with either party. Sounds good.

Nudging voters distorts the results.


I fail to see why we need a special list pertaining to voting that requires me to commit to do anything. If I want to vote I will, if I am not interested enough in the outcome to vote or make arrangements to vote early then I have still made a choice. The "Do not call" list should have an optional feature of excluding political, as well as telemarketing calls.



this is no a proposal to "require" you to do anything, but rather it is a bulwark against human imperfection, something like the way an alarm clock is. you want to behave a certain way, but you know yourself, and your own unreliability, so you give yourself an incentive ahead of time to help motivate you. the fact that campaigns could offer to voluntarily exclude these people from call lists is besides the point. after all, just cause you can get an added benefit here doesnt mean you are required to... using my alarm clock example, you could buy a special alarm clock that starts your coffee and prints your RSS newsfeeds for you when it goes off. this doesnt mean it is required, just that you get added benefit from utilizing it.

@#2 #5,

you dont sign up to vote for anyone in particular, in fact you could turn in a blank ballot with just your name and still fulfill your obligation (which you yourself set up). so obviously, no campaign is going to get a list of people who are committed to voting for the other guy. furthermore, regarding:

--"Gaining an undecided voter is a one vote swing; converting a decided voter is a two vote swing. I bet even politicians would understand that"

that may be, but isnt it more than twice as hard to convert a committed voter than an undecided one? why would a campaign try to convert voters (extremely hard) rather than swing undecided voters (much easier)



Several major problems with the idea.

1. I make a commitment to a candidate. Candidate changes course on some major isssue, i.e. abortion, finacial crisis, war, etc. This now causes me to decide that a second candidate is superior. If I am poor I may still vote for the worse candidate because I don't want to pay. The incentive should always be to vote for the best candidate.

2. I can be coerced by some orgainization into making this commitment, especially if I am poor. They offer a hot meal to sign up for candidate and make the commitment large enough that I can't afford to vote otherwise. Now the most scandelous candidate wins. Again not really good for the country

3. As already mentioned, do we really want more apathetic unknowledgable voters? I think we are all better off if they aren't voting. If you can't take half and hour to vote, you probably didn't do more than half on hour of research on how you were going to vote. That can be dangerous...

4. Can someone answer why my voting records are even available? Wouldn't the process be much better off if the ballot was secret? What if I don't want my employer to know wether I vote Libertarian or Democratic?



But part of the reason for all the snailmail and doorbell spam is to convince Joe and Jane Voter to vote for Candidate A instead of Candidate B.

Also, nixing the doorbell rings would create a non-trivial amount of extra coordination. Now it's just, "You two, go canvass that neighborhood." Then it would be, "You two, go canvass the houses not on this list." Maybe this part isn't that big of a deal, but it isn't free.


Seems like a list of "committed voters" would be an excellent list for fundraising or recruiting volunteers. I'd prefer they just call to solicit my vote and not my time and my money.


to #3 and #11 (and various others):

You do not commit to vote for a particular candidate; rather you simply commit to vote. Whether you vote is often publicly available; who you vote for never is (with good reason). The point is that the campaigns can already guess for many people who they're going to vote for, and thus can avoid pestering them ("get out the vote") if they see that those folks have already committed to showing up.

Wade Condict

Can I commit to not voting? I promise, no matter how many phone calls from campaigns I get, I won't be voting. That should free up some resources.


Doesn't this give a perverse incentive to candidates to target voters that signed up to vote for the other guy?

Gaining an undecided voter is a one vote swing; converting a decided voter is a two vote swing. I bet even politicians would understand that.

steve pesce

"When Dean first pitched the idea, I though it was neat"

You though it was neat?


As a pennsylvania voter, I just like the idea of a political do not call list. It shouldn't require a "commitment" to get people to stop bothering me.

By the way, that needs to include pollsters...