Opinion | Hi, There. Want to Triple Voter Turnout?
Turnout decides elections.
Many people have thought about how a campaign can get its supporters to the polls. And what they’ve come up is … not great. The best techniques make a difference when armies of volunteers use them. But the techniques are inefficient, frustrating for volunteers and annoying to voters.
Campaigns make calls and send texts. But voters in swing states, under siege, have learned to ignore any unknown caller or texter until Nov. 4.
Phone calls are very effective when a volunteer can reach someone. But volunteers are fortunate if five people pick up the phone every hour.
In 2018, campaigns began to send thousands of text messages, designed to “cut through the clutter.” Now they are the clutter. People see them but don’t engage. About 6 percent of recipients text back — and half of those are saying “go away.”
On Election Day, the most important strategy is canvassing — going door to door to urge supporters to vote. Typically, volunteers get a list (usually imperfect) of supporters in a neighborhood. But they can be blocks apart.
“With luck you knock on 10 doors in an hour,” said Shana Gallagher, who directed college organizing for Bernie Sanders. “Five people open their door, and three actually support your candidate. You rarely see the person get in their car to go vote. You have no idea what happens.”
She called one canvass on a college campus “the biggest waste of time in my political career.” And now there’s Covid-19. Even if canvassers are careful, they can put elderly or sick voters at risk. “Canvassing, while one of the best tools, is profoundly inefficient,” Ms. Gallagher said. “This can’t possibly be the best way to spend our time.”
Maybe it isn’t. Robert Reynolds, a behavioral scientist, thinks there’s something better: polling place vote tripling.
It works this way: Volunteers hang out outside a busy polling place (maintaining the legally required distance). When someone emerges, volunteers thank him or her for being a voter — and ask the voter to text three friends who might need a nudge to vote.
We know friend-to-friend contact is twice as powerful as outreach from a stranger. The challenge is how to go big and have friend-to-friend contacts on a scale large enough to make a difference in an election. Polling place vote tripling tries to solve that problem.
Near a busy polling place, a volunteer can talk to 25 people per hour, and 15 of them will each text three friends. That’s 45 people reached in one volunteer-hour, putting canvassing in the dust. And because they come from friends, these contacts will be more powerful.
Ken Stanley, a political consultant in Ohio who helps campaigns use and train volunteers, found out about vote tripling about a year ago and has used it personally since then whenever he can. “It’s just fun,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of people I talked to would do it.”
Mr. Stanley led a randomized trial of polling place vote tripling on the Oberlin College campus during the Ohio primary in March. He found that turnout was nearly eight percentage points higher among people on the list to get texts, when compared with the control group.
That’s an enormous effect; usually, a boost of one percentage point is considered valuable. But the study is unpublished, and has many caveats, and there are many reasons his methods might not be usable in other circumstances.
Mr. Reynolds founded the organization Votetripling.org, which does research on the practice and helps Democrats use vote tripling in swing states.
I wrote about Mr. Reynolds’s earlier version of vote tripling in 2019 as part of a new wave of strategies for friend-to-friend organizing, also called “relational organizing.”
We all listen to our friends, but word of mouth can matter more in communities that have historically not trusted the establishment. “The way Black people have gotten information about politics or social issues — those are churches, sororities and fraternities, neighborhood block clubs,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, which seeks to facilitate Black activism. “These social structures are longstanding.”
Many relational organizing tools are apps that allow campaign activists to find and reach key contacts in their address books. Mr. Reynolds points out that 97 percent of voters are non-activists. They won’t download an app. But they’ll text three friends — and those unexpected nudges will carry more weight. Ordinary voters are also more likely to have friends who need a reminder. to vote.
Vote tripling away from polling places works throughout the campaign. When a volunteer reaches a supporter — by canvassing, text or phone — she asks him to promise to nudge three friends to vote. The campaign writes down the friends’ first names: Rachel, Ross and Chandler. On Election Day, the campaign texts the supporter and says: “Hey, remember to nudge Rachel, Ross and Chandler to vote.”
Many campaigns and state Democratic parties, in addition to liberal get-out-the-vote groups like MoveOn, use this kind of vote tripling, It can work with early voting and with vote-by-mail. Mr. Stanley recently spent several hours calling people who had requested absentee ballots to thank them — and to ask them to reach out to three friends to get them to request ballots. “I think there’s opportunity to vote triple at every step in the absentee ballot process,” he said.
Vote tripling is a substitute for what campaigns usually ask supporters: Please pledge to vote, and tell us your plan for voting. A lot of people find this condescending. “Effectively, you’re saying, I don’t trust you to vote,” Mr. Stanley said. But asking them to recruit friends says that you do trust them, and that they’re important.
Vote tripling is most effective at the polling place, when people feel moved by the good feeling of voting. But polling place vote tripling may not be widely used this year.
Why? Not because of Covid — talking to people outside is not that dangerous if everyone is masked and at a good distance. It’s because campaigns are slow to adopt new ideas. “There’s so little time, and it’s so scary to experiment that most people don’t,” Ms. Gallagher said. “So we do things the way they’re always done.”
In addition, campaigns want supporters’ full names and contact information. Vote tripling — of both sorts — takes that control away. That makes campaigns nervous.
And while campaign season tripling can work everywhere, polling place vote tripling often cannot work. It requires a busy polling place, so volunteers can reach a lot of people. It must be a location in which it is legal to stand reasonably close to the polls. And those precincts should support your candidate overwhelmingly; if not, you risk encouraging the other side to turn out.
Democrats can use it on college campuses and in many communities of color; Republicans, in rural areas. But rural areas tend to be low-traffic, and there are far fewer of them. Mr. Reynolds said that in the key swing states there are nearly 3,000 precincts that are 90 percent or more Democratic, but only 111 that are 90 percent or more Republican.
Ms. Gallagher sent volunteers to use polling place vote tripling on about 60 campuses during the Super Tuesday primary. It’s rare to find places lopsided enough in a primary, but Mr. Sanders enjoyed about 90 percent support on campuses. It was chaotic but effective — and enjoyable, she said: “It’s one of few experiences with voters where you don’t get yelled at.”
Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.” She is a former editorial writer for The Times and the author, most recently, of “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” and the World War II spy story e-book “D for Deception.”
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