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.

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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

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

Postcards to Voters: What the Research Says

For the past few months, I’ve been volunteering to write postcards to registered voters to alert or remind them of upcoming elections (as well as to mention the Democratic candidate running in that election). My postcards are part of a grassroots effort called Postcards to Voters, which has picked up lots of steam — there are over 18,000 volunteers who have collectively written and sent over half a million postcards.

As I understand it, the primary goal of Postcards to Voters is not to persuade. We’re sending notices to registered Democrats about Democratic candidates, so I predict that few are undecided about or opposed to the candidate they receive a postcard about. Instead, the primary goal is to increase voter turnout (among people who are already likely to vote for the candidate); it’s a Get Out The Vote (GOTV) initiative.

I mentioned this project to a friend who asked me whether there’s research on the effectiveness of Postcards to Voters. To the best of my knowledge, this project hasn’t been studied, and that does make the scientific thinker in me slightly uncomfortable. But only slightly. Because whether it’s effective for the recipient, I know that creating the postcards is a positive outlet for my political angst. I don’t need research to show me that.

But also, there’s a substantial body of research, especially from political science, that can shed light on when and how Postcards to Voters can be successful for GOTV. Fortunately, a number of studies suggest that while campaigns rarely persuade voters, they can be effective in boosting voter turnout, especially for primary elections (which is what Postcards to Voters is aimed at during this time of year).

However, some research on GOTV initiatives is less than encouraging:

The guide to grassroots elections Get Out the Vote determined that GOTV efforts averaged one vote every 15 door knocks by volunteers ($31 dollars per vote), 35 phone calls by volunteers ($35 dollars per vote), or 273 pieces of nonpartisan direct mail ($91 dollars per vote, no effect from partisan direct mail).

(Yes, I found this information on Wikipedia.)

Along these lines, another study revealed that Democrats who received mail reminders to vote in the 2016 Presidential election did not vote at a higher rate than those who didn’t receive the reminders. Again, this is not encouraging, but we have to consider the context of the 2016 Presidential election: I highly doubt that many Americans forgot to vote on November 8, 2016. For months leading up to the election, the American public was swamped with information, opinions, and advertisements about the election. Those who were eligible to vote and were inclined to do so were likely going to vote whether they received a mail reminder or not. This is a stark contrast to elections that are probably way less publicized, like for the Yolo (CA) County District Attorney or the Nebraska Legislative District 6 State Legislature positions (both of which I have written postcards for this past week). There is a much greater opportunity for GOTV mail like our postcards to make a difference when voters aren’t already inundated by information about the election, when a message could actually serve as a reminder. In fact, at least one past study shows that text message reminders can be sufficient for reminding people to vote.

Additional research points to other features of productive GOTV campaigns, some of which are also features of Postcards to Voters. For example, personalized messages work better than generic ones: Since all Postcards to Voters are handwritten, they have the potential to be much more personal than mass-produced messages.

It wouldn’t be impossible to directly study the effectiveness of Postcards to Voters, but rigorously studying the initiative would compromise a lot of what makes the effort so great. For one, an ideal study might require the postcards to be standardized, so that every voter gets exactly the same information, presented in similar ways, with the same designs or embellishments on the card. There is currently a base level of standardization — three points (the candidate, the election date, and one other piece of info) that must be included on each card, but there are many other points for postcard creators to choose among if they’d like to add more info, and the design is totally up to them. This is a wonderful aspect of the project, and probably one that keeps people excited to continue making more postcards.

In addition, a controlled experiment would mean that some people (about half of the registered Democrats for the elections that Postcards to Voters target) would not get postcards — they would be the control group. Then researchers would have to track, for each election, whether each registered Democrat received a postcard or not and whether each registered Democrat voted or not, in order to examine the potential relationship between receiving a postcard and voting. It’s possible some researchers are tracking this exact information right now, but as far as I know, voters aren’t being randomly assigned to receive postcards or not. That would mean that we’re passing up sending postcards to half of our target audience, just so we could have a neat control group for experimental reasons. My understanding is that we’re sending postcards to as many registered Democratic voters as possible for each election, rather than setting some aside for control purposes. Again, that is probably a very good thing.

Postcards to Voters is not an academic exercise. It’s not designed to contribute to political science theory on who votes and why. It’s designed to GOTV as powerfully as possible, to reach as many voters as possible, and to engage as many people as possible in the creation process. It’s true that it hasn’t been scientifically validated, but it does rest on a foundation of research that shows that GOTV efforts can be effective. Personally, I’m willing to forgo the hard proof on this one in exchange for maximizing inclusivity and participation in the democratic process.