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The SMS Strategy Guide to Improve Young Voter Turnout

Published: Oct 17, 2018

The 2016 Presidential elections in the US saw an unusual voting behavior. For the first time in history, young voter turnout was quite high. The younger generation out-performed the older generation in casting votes.

Let me give you some real numbers. The Boomer and prior generations contributed to a total of 67.9 million votes. The younger voters topped this by casting 69.6 million votes! 

While these numbers are heartening, it has to be understood that the ‘younger generation’ consists of Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Zs. 

Now, if you take a look at how each of these age-groups performed at the polls (individually), the picture is not that promising.


Pic Courtesy: Pew Research Center

It is clear that as a demographic, the millennials are lagging behind drastically in their polling behavior.

You can get the young people to vote by finding out their reluctance to vote and addressing that specifically in your campaigns.

This post can help you there. We will first analyze why young voter turnout at the polls is so poor. Then, we will see how to address that issue with targeted messaging via SMS and thus encourage them to vote. 

Why is young voter turnout alarmingly poor?

The numbers in youth participation is not just a coincidence. Why are fewer young people voting?

The abysmal polling numbers have earned millennials a rather unwanted reputation of being too ‘narcissistic’ and ‘politically uninterested.’ 

Nothing could be further from the truth.

As a generation, millennials are no less invested in politics than the previous generations were (during their youth). 


Courtesy: Washington Post, Why don’t millennials vote?

From the above graph, when you compare the youth of 1967, 1987, and 2014, you can see that the political interest remains the same. In fact, millennials are more inclined to actively participate in politics (via protests, marches, etc.) than any of the previous generations in their youth. 

So why then this reluctance to vote from the millennials? Why is it that young voter turnout had never exceeded 50% (even when they were pivotal in the Obama win?).

The answer to that question can be attributed to 4 fundamental factors. (tackle these, and you can have the millennials turn up in droves!)

A) Rising individualism 

Gone are the days when exercising your right to vote is a civic obligation. Instead, it is seen more like a ‘personal choice’ – an exercise of individualism. 


Loosely translated, it means that casting a ballot is not compulsory. It is solely up to the young voter’s whims. You cannot pressure a young voter to cast a vote. You definitely cannot question his choice, because it infringes on his free will and individuality.

(Please note: I am merely stating facts, not voicing an opinion. I am neither criticising nor defending their behavior. If you find sarcasm oozing from the last few lines, that is definitely your imagination).

The fix 

This mentality does not signal an aversion to politics. It indicates a reluctance to get involved in issues that they think don’t think concerns them. 

To get them engaged, you can talk about the causes that they care about the most. Then you can highlight how their vote has the potential to impact this cause. 

What texts can you send?

  • Bulk texts that educate them on issues they care about
Hi  Noah, Do your bit to fight climate change. Bernie’s  green policies this election will combat co2 emissions and more. Read about it here: bit.lyber456
  • Peer to peer texts that inform them about reality
Hi Noah, By 2020 the amount of CO2 emissions have to be cut by 50%, to combat climate change. Do you know which election policies this year gives us a best shot at it?

Both these above texts can be sent as part of your GOTV efforts. They can also be included in the initial phases of your campaign (when you are IDing supporters from your database).

Pro tip: The success of this campaign depends upon how well you know your audience. While door-to-door canvassing, or rallies, find out which causes matter to them (and save that data!).

B) They do not see how politics pertains to them

Not a lot of campaign policies talk about how it can impact the youth. From their perspective, it is tough to care about how hospitals are run or how childcare is affected when they do not have families.

For instance, the kind of insurance premium that is up for debate in the ObamaCare is not something that pertains to them just yet. 


Pic Courtesy: Pew Research center

That is why Gen Xers are at the polls more than millennials are. They comprehend better the impact these bills and policies have on their everyday lives and are so more invested!

The fix

Talk to them about issues that pertain to them. (eg. credit scores). Or educate them about how these laws will impact them later in their mid-30s. 

What kind of SMS to send?

  • Bulk texts that provide information about the latest policy
Hi Noah, Bernie’s fiscal policy for this election helps youth improve their credit score. See how it can help you here: bit.lybern980
  • Peer to peer conversations to understand their stance on a particular issue:
Hi Noah, What do you think of the latest gun control policy? Do you agree with it?

As before, these texts could be part of your GOTV campaign. Or, it could just be to ID whether  a said millennial is a supporter or not. 

Pro tip: Remember to segment your leads according to the policies they care about. Send out targeted messages based on their inclinations. Otherwise, your messages will get ignored. 

C) The registration and voting can be time-consuming

Registering to vote and casting your ballot is not the same in all states. In some (like Alabama), a photo Id is required to vote. In places like Georgia, if a voter has not cast a vote in one election, he/she is summarily removed from the voter list. Many young people are new to the process registering for the first time, and may be unfamiliar with the policies involved.


Pic courtesy: Youth for Change

Keeping aside the ongoing debate of ‘why’ this is happening, it is evident that such hurdles discourage from taking to the polls – especially when they are already ‘too busy’ with their work.

The fix

Make it simpler for them to cast a vote. Make it drive through ballots, absentee ballots, etc. While this could seem a little outside your scope, you can still simplify the voting process with text messages. For example, let them know that if they aren’t able to vote on the election day, or through early voting, they may request an absentee ballot or vote by mail. Or, some states do not allow same day registration, and in such cases, people need to register by the deadline.

What kind of SMS to send?

  • Bulk texts with the voter registration portal
Hi Noah, Polls are open from 6 am to 7 pm. Find your polling booth here: bit.lyberpoll345.
  • Peer to peer texts asking if they have voted/or have registered/if they need help
Hi Noah, Can Bernie count on your support in the elections tomorrow? Let me know if you need a ride to the polling booth.

Pro tip: Be cognizant that gerrymandering and voter suppression could be preventing youth in your polling district to cast a vote. Use text messages to ensure that they do not fall prey to such tactics.

D) More inclined for social change than political change

Young people believe that they can drive change, as per CIRCLE’s analysis. It is the millennials who lead the protest for climate change, who take to the streets about gun violence and who are vocal about racism. This means that they would much rather look to social reforms to achieve a goal than approach it via a candidate.

So, focusing on these key issues can help engage more young people.


Pic courtesy: Youth for change

The fix

The underlying issue is not their unwillingness to act. It is their unwillingness to seek politics to act. The millennials either do not have trust in the system or in the candidate to bring about the changes they want. 

If each millennial believes their vote matters and can be pivotal in the outcome of a bill, they will definitely be lining up at the booth! Young voter turnout would be significantly higher.

While building faith via SMS can seem a tall order, it can be done- by starting small. You can talk to them about the changes your candidate has already worked for and show the impact it has had.

What kind of SMS to send?

  • Bulk texts about your candidate’s take on social policies (that your voters care about).
Hi Noah, Last year Bernie helped reunite 300 families that were separated at the border. See how he helped and his projected policy for this election here: bit.ly7894ber
Hi Noah, your vote matters. It could make all the difference between continuing this existing government or moving for change. Can Bernie count on you to vote tomorrow?

Pro tip: Do not engage in conversation unless you are sure about your audience’s support or opinion on a subject. Otherwise, it will be pointless back and forth ‘argument’ with the voter that will not suit your goals. 

However, there’s a twist to this. 36% of young Americans reported they will definitely vote in the 2022 midterm elections, as per the Spring 2022 Harvard Youth Poll. The turnout of eligible youth voters(ages 18 to 29) increased in 2020 due to key issues like the pandemic, racism, climate change, etc, shows Vox.

The 11% increase in voter turnout in 2020 presidential election, compared to 2016 is the first occurrence since the voting age was changed to 18. That is, across the country, half the eligible young voters cast a vote in 2020, which is a huge jump from the 39% turnout rate in 2016.

Why did so many young people show up in 2020?

The increased participation of young voters in recent elections may be due to a key factor, i.e., increasing political interest and knowledge in young voters.

Why are text messages the answer?

Notice that in all of the above scenarios, I have never once mentioned phone calls. Or emails. While both can work really well for communication, text messaging has a better impact on young voter turnout. Here are a few reasons why.

A better alternative to robo-calls (less invasive)

In the 2018 US campaigns alone, 26.3 billion robocalls were placed – to both cellphones and landlines alike. Roughly, it translates to 7 calls per month per person. Because youth population is high, campaigns try to reach them all the time. Such a high frequency of calling has resulted in the audience becoming highly averse to it – as seen in the alarming drop in pick up rates.


Text messages offer a more straightforward, noninvasive method of reaching out to the electorate. The recipients can respond at their leisure – thus helping response rates. 

More conversational and engaging

Northwestern University recently piloted a mammoth effort that was aimed at encouraging more college students to register their vote. In their venture, every new student talks to another student about registering and casting to vote. 

Such one on one, peer to peer conversation massively influenced registration. About 95% of those students who were eligible signed up to vote. 

A similar environment can be replicated via peer to peer texts. Young people can have one to one conversation via texts to learn more about a candidate, a certain policy, or the election process as a whole. 

Better than emails

The open, click, and response rates for texts are legendary. You know that 90% of all texts are opened within the first 3 minutes. You also know that texts, in general, get better responses than emails. 


Pic courtesy: Tech for campaigns

There is one more metric that seals the deal. People who were texted were 1% more likely to turn out to vote. This 1% could have a significant impact on young voter turnout, especially if you have targeted your campaigns to that segment.

Preferred by millennials

90% of Americans own a cellphone. And, if these Americans are millennials (our target audience), they prefer to receive a text from you rather than a call.


Pic courtesy: Media post

Essentially, SMS is a way to reach your audience via a medium they prefer. So the chances of your audience being receptive to your message are higher, thus boosting the impact communication can have in young voter turnout.

How to include text messaging in your campaigns (and get millennials to vote)?

There are three kinds of text messaging that you can use in your campaigns to encourage millennials to vote. Which one you pick depends entirely on your objective. Here is a snapshot from the GOTV guide (using text messages) on the various options open to you:


Pic Courtesy: CallHub, GOTV guide

Notice how the same message is conveyed in three different ways. A peer to peer text is conversational, with a volunteer actively engaging with the supporter. 

On the other hand, a broadcast SMS is more generic, with little work done by your volunteers. 

Finally, there is the SMS opt-in campaign that helps you collect details of interested supporters – so that you can engage them via texts and calls. 

Depending upon how responsive your audience is, and the kind of action you want them to take, the text message campaign will differ. 

For instance, if you know your supporters are engaged with you, all you need to do is send them a reminder (via bulk SMS). However, if your supporters need some more motivation, a conversation can encourage them to participate. In such cases, you will need a peer to peer campaign.

Finally, to increase the number of supporters on your list you will choose an opt in campaign. Here are a few examples on how you can use these texts in your campaign to increase young voter turnout.

In relational organizing

Relational organizing is a new strategy, wherein you volunteers reach into their own network – friends/family/neighbours and encourage them to cast vote. The volunteers will communicate with their network how they see fit: via social media or direct contact.

However, as a campaign manager, you can use text messages to keep up with the volunteers. You can check in with them on the progress they have made within their network, whether they have met their target or see if they need help. 

Manager: Hi Mary, can we count on your network’s support tomorrow?
Volunteer: Hi Sam, sure thing. I have spoken to 5 already. They are all turning up to vote tomorrow.
Manager: Awesome! Let me know if you need help.
Volunteer: 🙂 

Yes, these messages would work better as a peer to peer campaign. However, you can use bulk SMS if you are pressed for resources or are sure that young voter turnout can be impacted.


Any of the above text messages can be used as part of your GOTV efforts. You can use it to communicate polling details, encourage more registration or simply remind your supporters to go vote. This guide on GOTV will help you with more ideas to improve young voter turnout.

To improve door to door canvassing

If door to door canvassing is your first touch point, then you can follow it up with a text message. This will create top of the mind awareness with your electorate and be the first step in building a relationship with him. 

You can use bulk SMS campaign to send out these texts. Just remember to use custom fields to add the exact policies you discussed while meeting them.

This will come in handy later to segment your target audience and send out targeted communication.

For creating awareness

Typically, it is seen that a voter needs 5 to 7 touch points to become a supporter (or turn up to vote). Text messages can definitely be one or more channel of contact for those touch points.

You can engage your voters with bulk texts about your party’s stance on various policies. You can also send them content on the positive impact your party has had on a problem. 

If needed, you can highlight what can go wrong if your party doesn’t come to power, and thus encourage young voters turn up at the polls.

To ID supporters

Admittedly, using text messages to ID supporters is the first part of a GOTV campaign. However, I felt it merits a separate mention of its own because of how crucial it is to get it right.

The first challenge in ID-ing supporters, is getting the lead to respond to you. Since robo-calls are out of the question, (and you may not have enough man-power for phone-banking), peer to peer texts are perfect for this. 

All you have to do is reach out to each voter with a question on how they lean towards a particular issue. If you play your cards right, you can also use the same conversation to sway them to your side. 

Since a single volunteer can send out 2500 texts per hour, using texts to ID supporters is definitely do-able. If each conversation results in a 1% higher chance of voting, then this can significantly impact young voter turnout.

For events

You can send texts in bulk to all those who come for your rallies. You can thank them for their support or send texts to drive home a point. 

If your candidate has performed exceptionally well in a campaign debate, you can send excerpts of it to your supporters so that they do not miss out. 

Or, you can also reach out to your event attendees for volunteering help via texts. Via a bulk SMS, you can send them details on where and how they can register to help in the campaign efforts.

To increase voter registration

A lot of voter registration drives happen on college campuses. This makes it easy for teens who become eligible to vote register immediately. If you are participating in such drives, you can send bulk SMS to all the college students, reminding them about the registration booth at campus.

You can encourage them to check with their friends if they have registered and bring them to the booth. Or, you can simply send the voter registration link in your SMS and ask them to pass it on. 

How can you set this up in CallHub?

The CallHub dashboard allows you to create either of the campaigns you need: a peer to peer texting campaign or a bulk SMS.


I did not mention the SMS opt-in campaign because that is primarily for list building. For instance, say you want to add more supporters to your group, you will choose an SMS opt-in campaign.

Eg. You can run a campaign saying:  “Text FEARLESS to 33339 to support gun safety.”

Here, FEARLESS, is the keyword and 33339 is the short code. Once supporters text you to join, you have their consent to engage with them via SMS and thus get a list of people to engage with for your campaigns. 

It is to these people that you send the peer to peer and broadcast SMS to. 

If you want to execute any of the above use-cases, then setting up an SMS broadcast campaign or a peer to peer campaign is your best bet.

In CallHub, setting up either of these campaigns is a simple process. Once you decide which campaign to send, here is what you have to do:

Step 1. Create the campaign

Here you will give the campaign name and select whom you want to send it to.

Step 2. Type out the script

Add the message you want to send your voters

Step 3. Tweak the settings

Do you want updates in your email id for each response?

Step 4. Schedule it

Mention the day and time you want the campaign to go

If it is a peer to peer campaign, you will have additional options of assigning them to specific campaigns (or assigning specific voters to them). 

How to gauge campaign performance? 

Let us assume that you have sent such a campaign to all the millennials in your list, in an attempt to increase young voter turnout. Now, you can look at the following metrics from the campaign analytics:

  1. Response rate: Of the entire list you texted, how many people responded to your SMS?
  2. No. of opt-outs: How many of them messaged with a ‘STOP’?
  3. Bounce rates: How many texts were not delivered?

This will help you gauge how successful your campaign was. All the supporters who replied to your SMS have an increased chance of casting a vote (roughly 1% more).

If you have a lot of opt-outs (wince, it happens!), then you have to renew your efforts towards list building.

The bounce rate numbers could indicate that you have to focus your efforts on better data collection. 

You can also segment supporters based on their response to send out more targeted messages. For instance, filter those supporters who have not responded to your SMS. You can reach out to them with a different message (another cause they care more about) and check the response. 

If you want more details on how SMS marketing can help your campaigns, this guide can help you out. 

A much better option would be seeing the results first hand. Just sign up for CallHub (it’s free) and see how your audience responds to texts.



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