You Can Help Get out the Vote this November: Pick up a Pen and WRITE!

There are some really terrible — dare I say deplorable — things happening in the United States right now. It’s easy to feel discouraged, to assume that we are powerless to stop the runaway train. But the midterm elections will take place in under a month, and they provide an opportunity for us, collectively, to change course. In the lead up to the elections, we all have a part to play in tilting the scales toward justice by encouraging others — friends, family, and even strangers — to vote on November 6.

And fortunately, there are organizations that can help us do this outreach. I recently learned about Vote Forward, which provides a template letter and addresses to volunteers who want to encourage others to vote. Volunteers hand-write their notes to tell recipients why they’ve pledged to vote, and encouraging those receiving the letter to do the same (though not for a specific candidate). All Vote Forward letters will be sent out on October 30 — one week before the elections — so that the reminder is fresh in voters’ minds on election day.

For many people, like me, reaching out to strangers through letters (or postcards) feels good — it gives us the sense that at least we’re doing something. Fortunately, research shows that we’re actually doing more than making ourselves feel good with such efforts: evaluations of “Please vote” letters have revealed that their impact is real. Those writing don’t have to be satisfied with the feeling that they’re doing something positive; they can know that they truly are contributing to a higher voter turnout.

For instance, in the 2017 Alabama Senate race, almost 7,000 people who voted in the 2016 election (but not in other elections) were included in a study. One thousand of these potential voters were randomly assigned to receive a letter; the rest did not. Among those who received a letter, 52.9% voted, while among those who did not, only 49.5% did. This may not seem like a huge difference, but in close elections, this difference is more than enough to affect the outcome.

Screen Shot 2018-10-08 at 9.46.34 AM
Graphic courtesy of Vote Forward

Over the past (almost) two years, I’ve been shocked, disappointed, and outraged at our country’s leaders and the horrific attitudes and policies they’re promoting. It’s often tempting to unplug the Internet, blast upbeat music, and pretend that America is a land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. But denial won’t reunite asylum-seeking families, bring justice to victims of police violence or sexual assault, or take steps to save our planet from climate disasters.

If you feel as I do, I invite you to pick up a pen and reach out to others — remind them that election day is November 6 and that their vote matters. Sign up to write for evidence-backed efforts like Vote Forward or Postcards to Voters (an effort I’ve written about previously), and donate your time and a few stamps to improving our democracy. Our collective votes are our only way out of this mess, and we’re running out of time.

Featured photo by Mirah Curzer on Unsplash

How metaphorical is the “blue wave”?

The political “blue wave” is a hot topic right now.

Screen Shot 2018-09-02 at 10.52.39 AM.png
Trends in Google searches for the term “blue wave” since just after the 2016 US Presidential election.

The idea is that the 2018 midterm elections could result in a large turnover of red (Republican) Congressional seats to blue (Democrat) candidates.

As I’ve gradually been hearing the term more and more (and so has Google, according to my search on Google Trends above), I’ve started to wonder just how metaphorical the blue wave really is.

To clarify, I know it’s not literal (though with climate change, even that seems possible). But to be truly metaphorical, the term needs to be relatively productive. When used in a linguistic sense, productive means that the comparison can be built on in a number of ways that still make sense. For example, metaphors that compare quality or quantity to height are very productive. We can apply this idea metaphorically in a many different ways — we can get our hopes up, prices can dropor products can be top-notch. Terms that are figurative but aren’t productive are more likely to be idioms than metaphors (like barking up the wrong tree).

I wondered if “blue wave” was being used productively, as we’d expect from a truly metaphorical expression, or whether its use was more standard and idiom-like.

A quick search suggests that “blue wave” is certainly productive. Writers aren’t just dropping the term in a canned way for a dose of imagery, but are instead extending the metaphor in creative ways. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Don’t get ahead of yourselves, Democrats. That ‘blue wave’ may not be that high. Here, we have a reference to the wave’s height as an indication of the number of Congress seats we might see turn from Republican to Democrat. Interestingly, though, the author doesn’t stick exclusively to the height comparison, also referring to the wave’s strength and speed as the metaphorical analogues to potential Democrat victories. The “blue wave” is carried throughout the piece, as the author ends on this colorful note (emphasis my own):

Prospects of an impending blue wave have clearly returned and Democratic leaders would be wise to ride the wave rather than attempt to get ahead of it lest it is they who are swamped and washed off the surfboard they hoped would carry them to victory.

  • Will the Democrats Catch a “Blue Wave”? As in the example above, here the blue wave is something that can carry Democrats to success. For me, this evokes the image of a woman in a crisp pantsuit surfing a big, blue Hawaiian wave. Nice.
  • 7 Ways to Power the “Blue Wave.” In this headline, the wave’s power, more than its size, is highlighted. Clearly we need a wave strong enough to make its way from the coast to the prairies, so it makes sense that we need at least 7 ways to power it.
  • Why Democrats are worried the “blue wave” might stop short of Florida. Another headline that emphasizes the spatial aspect of the blue wave — it needs to travel across the mammoth of a country to increase the number of Democrats elected in non-coastal places. The metaphor falls apart a little here, though, because if there’s any state that a wave should not have trouble reaching, it’s probably the one that’s a massive peninsula.
  • Is A Big, Blue Wave Forming Off The Political Coast? This headline references the origin of waves. They form off the coast. Upon reading the article, however, “off the coast” seems to actually be referring to the middle of the country. This is a bit confusing, as I’ve never heard of a wave forming in Indiana or Missouri, but it sounds nice, so let’s go with it.
  • ‘Blue wave’ would have undercurrent in California races. Now we’re getting into nuanced ocean metaphors.
  • Is a Blue Wave on Its Way? This article references turbulence among the President’s voters, which is another cool adaptation of a specific feature of waves… but it does make me wonder, why exactly are the Republican President’s voters riding on the blue wave?
  • With such a close race, the “blue wave” wasn’t crushed – but it might be dampened. This sentence, from an article describing a loss for Democrats, refers to another salient feature of waves — they’re wet. It’s not exactly intuitive to compare political wins to wetness, but I guess the implications is that the wetter the wave, the better (for Democrats).

To be honest, these creative “blue wave” uses don’t always make total sense to me, especially upon reflection. But they are creative, and in many cases productive, and that might be enough to get people thinking about, using, and acting on the “blue wave” this November.

Cover photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash.

Note: Since publishing this piece, I have learned that Indiana does experience large waves thanks to Lake Michigan. Thanks to a reader for keeping me informed!

The Midterms are Coming: Effective Approaches for Encouraging People to VOTE

Midterm elections are coming up in the US, which means an opportunity to turn a horrific political reality into one that’s at least slightly less horrific. Needless to say, with many people’s lives and the future of our democracy on the line, we absolutely need to vote this November.*

Somewhat understandably, voting rates in midterm elections tend to be lower than they are for Presidential elections. In the 2014 midterm election, only 37% of eligible Americans voted. This midterm “falloff” (compared to Presidential election years) has been especially pronounced among the youngest voters, so this group represents a prime target for Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaigns.

There’s quite a bit of research on different forms of GOTV campaigns–for example, calling vs. brochures vs. in-person conversations. It’s helpful to know which forms of outreach are most effective (and why), but beyond that, it’s helpful to know exactly what language, when used in these various efforts, is most effective for encouraging people to vote.

Here are a few tips based in social science research for what to write or say when encouraging people to vote:

BE a voter: Use the noun, not the verb

When you ask people to vote, you’re asking them to engage in a specific behavior. This may be effective for some people, but research shows that if you instead ask them to be a voter, people are actually more likely to vote. The subtle difference is in whether the phrase taps into people’s sense of their personal identity (who they can be, not just what they can do).

The researchers who investigated the effects of these different phrases found that people who were reminded of the kind of person they can be (a voter) were more likely to register to vote and, in two separate statewide elections, actually vote than those who were reminded of what they can do (vote).

Make a plan

Many people who intend to vote don’t actually do so. They may like the idea of voting and know which candidates they prefer, but then election day comes, and they forget. Or they become busy with other things, or realize they don’t have a ride. As we all know, there are many things that can come up to prevent a well-intentioned voter from making it to the polling center.

Voting advocates can combat many of these obstacles by reminding people to make a plan to vote. A group researchers had the help of voter mobilization callers to test two scripts — one that just encouraged people to vote, and one that also encouraged them to make a plan (including when they’d vote, how they’d get to the polling center, and what else they’d be doing that day). In the 2008 presidential primary (Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton), people who had been asked about their plans were much more likely to vote than those who had been called but hadn’t discussed plans.

Everyone’s doing it

For better and worse, we like to keep up with each other. If we hear that others are doing something good, we want to do it too. And research confirms that this is true of voting as well. People who read that voter turnout was expected to be high were more likely to vote than those who read that turnout was expected to be low. The work suggests that people aren’t motivated by the idea of being the rare voter, but rather by the idea of following the group to the polls.

We can do this

November is soon, so now’s the time to GOTV. Fortunately, voters** have participated in the primaries leading up to these midterms at higher rates than usual. Indifference is not an option, and with a solid research base, we have plenty of tools to increase voter turnout this November.

And if you’re looking for a good way to contribute to the GOTV movement, check out Postcards to Voters, a group of volunteers that sends handwritten reminders to targeted voters reminding them to vote in key elections for Democrats. You can read more about the ways that the effort is informed by research in an earlier post.

*Full disclosure: Although I value encouraging people to vote, regardless of how they will vote, I unequivocally advocate for people to vote for Democrats in November. I value treating all people equally, with compassion and humanity; rejecting hate; and basing policy decisions in the best available evidence, and today’s Republicans have demonstrated that they are incapable or unwilling to do these things.

**especially Democrats, likely at least in part because of deep antipathy to Trump and his party.

Cover photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

Metaphors of the 2016 Presidential Election

I discovered today that if you Google a candidate’s name + “issue stances,” Google provides a list of key political issues and quotes from that candidate on the issue. As someone who tries to remain an educated voter but doesn’t particularly enjoy politics, I was excited to find what essentially seems to be the Sparknotes for voting.

Political discourse is known for being full of metaphors, and the quotes Google provided were no exception. Here are some of the more colorful ones I noticed and the ways they may shape the way we think about the issues*:


Donald Trump repeatedly uses the metaphor of immigrants as water: “We cannot allow illegal immigrants to pour into our country,” and “These are people that shouldn’t be in our country. They flow in like water.” When water is flowing, and especially when it’s pouring, we infer that it’s coming fast and consistently. Further, when too much water comes too fast (like when it’s pouring rain), we end up with flooding, which can destroy infrastructure and the homes and lives that people have worked hard to build for themselves. These inferences seem to be consistent with Trump’s stance on immigration: if we don’t cut off the metaphorical faucet, we could all end up drowning, watching all that we’ve worked for float away.

082812 met isaac gc 01
Image Credit

Clinton and Sanders use a journey metaphor for people who are in America illegally, often referring to a “path to citizenship” (a phrase they both use) and providing a “roadmap to citizenship to the 11 million aspiring Americans living in this country” (Sanders). Paths are intentional and defined, and when we stay on them, we eventually end up at a destination. Sometimes staying on a path does take some physical effort, but each step results in progress. Just as immigrants travel to arrive in America, once they’re here they will metaphorically travel towards citizenship. The inference accompanying this metaphor is that the Democratic candidates will further define and structure the path (perhaps by clarifying the roadmap) to allow immigrants to become legal citizens.


The Democratic candidates have made some revolutionary statements about education, especially college education, that point to their goals to drastically reduce or eliminate students’ college debt. Hillary Clinton has referred to creating an “education SWAT team” of qualified people who would define education standards for the country. A SWAT team comes in to restore order during times of chaos and danger, so the SWAT team metaphor implies that our education system is in dire need of dramatic, immediate help. Bernie Sanders shares a similar viewpoint by sarcastically referring to the “crime of trying to get an education.” Just as criminals often have to pay burdensome fines for their actions, many college graduates find themselves with unrealistic amounts of debt after college. By likening college debt to criminal fines, Sanders implies that it is ridiculous that graduates and criminals both have similar punishments. If you buy into this metaphor, his plan to make public colleges free seems like a no-brainer. Donald Trump, on the other hand, makes few substantive comments on education, so his metaphors are not clear.

National Security

The metaphors for elements of national security seem to be a little more varied. On the side of avoiding too much security, Sanders says that “We can (protect the country from terrorism) without living in an Orwellian world.” You could argue that the reference to an Orwellian world is technically an allusion, but it’s also a metaphorical allusion. In George Orwell’s 1984, the government knows everything about everyone, and the book is a creepy warning for what can happen if the government oversteps its boundaries. This reference encourages people to think of the vague notion of the government increasing its intelligence efforts in more concrete terms but conjuring up the disturbing images from 1984.

There are also many metaphors that suggest that national security should be increased. Clinton’s language suggests that terrorism threats are concrete, material things, referring to “the threats we face together” and “The threat we face from terrorism is real, it is urgent, and it knows no boundaries.” People have a hard time thinking about things they can’t see or touch (or otherwise experience directly), which is when metaphor often comes in. Terrorism threats are a great example of a complex and intangible problem, but by suggesting that they are real things that we can face and that they can spread without boundaries, Clinton encourages people to think about them more concretely, which can in turn encourage us to take national security more seriously.

Trump often talks very literally about a wall around our borders. This is not a metaphor, but would be an especially vivid one if he wasn’t being serious. He does talk about our current border status metaphorically, however, claiming that “our borders are like Swiss cheese.” If only he were being literal about that border claim, we’d have a lot of happy people!

Image Credit

* Here are the Google searches that turned up the quotes that I use throughout this post: Trump, Clinton, Sanders.