We report two studies investigating whether, and if so how, different low-cost interventions affect voter registration rates. Low-cost message-based interventions are increasingly used to promote target behaviours. While growing evidence shows that such ‘nudges’ often significantly impact behaviour, understanding of why interventions work or fail in particular contexts remains underdeveloped. In a natural field experiment conducted before the 2015 UK general election, we varied messages on a postcard sent by Oxford City Council to unregistered students encouraging them to join the electoral register. Our primary finding from the field study is that just one of our interventions – a reminder that people failing to register may be fined – has a significant positive impact. Offering small monetary rewards to register instead has a negative but insignificant effect. In a second study, using an online experiment we identify a particular mechanism explaining the influence of this intervention. Specifically, we show that our interventions have divergent effects on perceptions of the normative appropriateness of registering: emphasising that failing to register is punishable by law strengthened the perception that one ought to register, while offering monetary inducements for registering weakened the perception that doing so is an action already expected within society.