When people go out to vote on election day, it isn’t just the charisma of a great candidate that brings them to the polls. Yes, having an inspiring candidate goes a long way to running a competitive race, but it is the targeted approach campaigns take to identifying prospective voters, and the personalized messaging that gets the ball rolling.
Political campaigns are investing heavily in learning about voters and using the data to create well-informed citizens who’ll get out the vote on election day. But here we are in 2018, and voter turnout is still a major issue.
Voter turnout in the US, for example, still lags behind most developed countries at around 55%. The average numbers are in part due to policy changes that are slow to catch up to other countries like Australia, Germany or Canada which register much higher turnout rates.
Canada, for example, which registered a 62.12% voter turnout in the 2015 federal elections, automatically updates the electoral roll if a voter moves from one state to another.
Canadian election offices send voter information cards to all registered voters in the weeks leading up to a federal election to inform people about their polling location and when to vote. It also introduced same-day registration which allows people who haven’t registered to register at the polls on election day.
Few countries have also expanded their registration drive to automatically register high schoolers and add their names to the voter roll once they’ve reached voting age.
Campaigners need to work within the confines of policy to make sure that supporters register to vote and get to the polls on election day. We’ll look at the strategies that are proven to be most effective at turning out voters.
Why don’t people vote?
- A study by CIRCLE, a Tufts University initiative found that around 20% of young people don’t think they know enough to be able to vote. It also found that the majority of the youth don’t believe voting can effectively change society.
- According to Eyal Winter, an economist, at the University of Leicester in England, voting is a way of showing loyalty to your social group and its values. If a person’s social group doesn’t really care about politics, then the members of the group are less likely to vote.
- According to a study by Survation, the largest percentage of people who did not vote in the UK in 2015, did so because they thought that their beliefs were not represented by the parties in the election.
In summary, the most common reasons for not voting include:
- They don’t think it makes a difference
- A Complex voter registration process
- They don’t like the candidate or campaign issues
- They are too busy or have conflicting schedules
Here are the strategies you can use to address these issues:
Help voters make a plan
People are more likely to complete a task if you can get them to mentally visualize the process.
When voters were asked over the phone to take a pledge to vote followed by a series of questions that mentally took them through the process of voting, they voted at a rate 4 percentage points higher than people who did not receive the call.
The tactic works best on voters who stay alone. These voters are less likely to have a plan than people who stay in groups or families where discussing the next day’s activities is a normal part of everyday life. For someone who stays alone, rehearsing their Election Day routine with a stranger has a huge effect on their decision to cast a vote.
Questions you can ask include:
- When are you planning to vote? (“Before I drop the kids off or after I come home from work.”)
- How are you getting to the polling station? (“Should I drive my car or take the bus.”)
If you have enough volunteers you can also hand out pledge cards that ask people to “pledge” to vote followed by volunteers asking the above questions face to face.
How to find voters who stay alone?
Household data is hard to come by unless you’re using a data vendor.
The cheapest solution is to group people who have the same address or landline number and exempt them from plan-making messages. While NationBuilder uses address to segment households, CallHub uses landline numbers.
Both these methods are useful for targeting but their effectiveness depends on the quality of your voter data.
QUICK NOTE: This GOTV tactic works on people you have established a relationship with, through at least one previous contact. If you are a non-partisan organization cold calling or texting leads from a voter list, this strategy may not work for you.
Repeated personal contact
Door-to-door canvassing and phone banking are particularly effective at turning out voters, including those who haven’t voted much in the past. The personal social contact that is inherent in these two communication mediums is noted by political science experiments as the driving force inspiring people to vote.
We can note this difference through studies that pit commercial phone banks against volunteer-led phone banks. While GOTV efforts through commercial phone banks boosted voter turnout by less than 1 percentage, a volunteer-led phone bank raised it by nearly 3 percentage points.
And when these same voters were contacted repeatedly over calls, outreach efforts were twice as effective at creating committed voters.
Campaigns need to shift from turnout strategies that are easily disregarded by the public and turn to more personal and engaging channels like canvassing and phone calls. And rather than using these tactics as a one-stop strategy, they need to be consistently employed across the duration of the campaign.
Get Out The Vote messages that use social pressure to motivate people to vote are effective at increasing turnout. Results from political science experiments during the 2006 Michigan primary elections show that when voters were reminded through a GOTV mailer that their participation was a matter of public record and that their neighbors knew whether they voted or not, voter turnout shot up by almost 8 percent.
In a study during the 2010 general election, researchers sent out two mailers to people, with one minor difference – one mailer had the text “We may call you after the election to ask about your voting experience” at the top-right corner.
An addition that increased its effectiveness by almost 50%.
Social pressure can be put to work in multiple ways to motivate people to vote. Other successful social pressure tactics include:
- Sending someone a letter showing their past voting history.
- Thanking people for voting in previous elections.
- Emphasizing that many people vote (This tactic is somewhat disputed with some campaigners still using low voter turnout and thin margins as a motivator. But multiple studies suggest otherwise, with researchers recording higher turnout with everyone-is-doing-it messages rather than don’t-be-part-of-the-problem appeals.)
While these tactics follow a softer tone, shaming tactics that use social pressure also increase voter turnout. For example, sending the message that both the voter and their neighbors would be informed about who had voted after the election increase turnout by 8 percentage points. However, Compare that to the 4.6 percentage point increase when voters were told that their vote was a matter of public record, it is evident why campaigns resort to shaming tactics.
Although they’re less effective in the short run, tactics that don’t shame voters into voting create better outcomes across multiple election cycles. Shaming tactics have resulted in backlash for campaigns as well making people feel coerced into doing something.
The best practice is to frame your message so that it effectively says “we’re keeping an eye on you” rather than “we’re going to shame you if you don’t vote”.
Social norms rally people to go out and vote in high numbers. The motivation to adhere to social norms is even stronger when delivered as part of a message from someone within the voter’s personal network.
This method is especially effective at turning out minority communities and young voters. Getting the message to vote from a member of their community or someone from the same college is more impactful than the same message coming from a stranger.
The hard part is finding people from a volunteer’s contact list who are part of their voting precinct. Some relational organizing tools like VoterCircle solve this by letting you match a supporter’s contact list with the voter list and filter out voters in their area.
IMPORTANT: Make sure the ask to mobilize friends and family only goes out to strong supporters. A 2006 study found that asks to mobilize neighbors deter some people from voting.
Think of it as a product purchase. Aren’t you less likely to buy the product if exposed to an optional add-on during check out? A call to mobilize works similarly by shifting the voter’s attention from a “vote yourself” message to a “get your neighbors to vote” component which comes as too big an ask for weak supporters.
Creating well-informed voters
A study by Nonprofit VOTE on nonpartisan voter turnout groups found that groups who provided information around voting including voter guides, ballot measure informational sheets, etc. were more effective at getting people out to vote.
Some of the common questions around voting that you can help answer include:
- Where do I vote?
- When do I vote?
- When and where do I vote if I can’t make it on election day?
- What identification do I need?
- Can I still vote if I’m not registered to vote?
With young people ages 18 to 24, the confusion around how to cast their ballot is a deterrent to voting. Statistics Canada puts them as the group that’s least likely to vote in a provincial election.
If you can cut out that confusion, there is a higher chance people are going to vote.
QUICK TIP: If you are sending GOTV texts, include a contact number so people who aren’t comfortable with texting have a channel to reach out to for more information. Especially useful when you are reaching out to older voters who may not be familiar with texting.
Eg. “Have questions about voting? Call our voter hotline at 822-24-8268”.
Strike a contrast with the opponent
Many voters remain apathetic about the voting process and their involvement with it because they’re unaware of how items on a candidate’s agenda directly affect their lives.
Many others are aware of the policy positions of your candidate and still, don’t turn out to vote because your messaging does not strike a contrast with the opponent.
Voters who only hear one side of the story tend to believe that both candidates will enact the same policies. They need to be made aware of the distinction and how certain policy positions improve their lives while others don’t.
The strategy is particularly effective when contacting under-represented groups and swing voters to get them to see how casting the ballot in favor of your candidate can make their lives better (compared to how worse off they’d be by voting for an opponent).
The final vote
Deciding to go out to vote should ideally be a subconscious decision that a voter makes on their own. But we’re not there yet, and getting there requires targeted efforts that can make the advantages of voting clear as day. This requires campaigners to talk to people, again and again, create well-informed voters and make sure they have an easy time getting out the vote.