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How to mobilize reluctant voters

(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
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Americans of different ethnicities vote at very different rates. Whites and blacks tend to vote more frequently than Latinos and Asians.  Older people and wealthier people vote more frequently than the young and the poor. Increasing turnout among groups that tend to vote at lower rates can not only increase their political power, but also change the outcomes of elections. Indeed, this is a major reason that Democrats are concentrating so much on mobilizing voters who don’t vote in midterm elections.

Could this strategy work?  Is it possible to mobilize people who are otherwise uninterested in voting or reluctant to vote?   We now have good answers to these questions.  People who have not participated much before can indeed be moved to go to the polls.

What really mobilizes these voters is repeated personal contacting. In our book Mobilizing Inclusion, Lisa García Bedolla and I describe 268 get-out-the-vote field experiments conducted repeatedly across six electoral cycles from 2006 to 2008. These field experiments were focused on communities with a history of low participation and were conducted in partnership with non-partisan community-based organizations. Because these experiments randomly assign some voters to be contacted in particular ways and others not to be contacted, we can better know what actually gets people to the ballot box.

Our analysis shows that citizens who haven’t voted much in the past can be inspired by either door-to-door visits or live phone calls. Tellingly, our research shows that such contacts, especially if repeated, can produce habitual voters. Phone banks from which callers contact the same potential voters twice are especially effective in creating committed voters. Door-to-door campaigns also showed strong results, with one such effort increasing voter turnout by more than 40 percentage points. (To be sure, most get-out-the-vote campaigns produce smaller gains.)

Personal contacting works to persuade people to vote regularly even though the interactions do not increase voters’ resources and have little or no impact on their underlying attitudes about public issues. It is the social interaction itself that seems to matter. These interactions appear to change reluctant citizens’ entrenched understandings of themselves as disengaged from the polity. For most Americans – and especially for low-income citizens of color – it is very rare to be contacted for the sole purpose of being urged to vote. When such an unexpected interaction occurs, it can be very meaningful.

Personal contact to encourage voting can be enough to cause many low-income minority people to see themselves anew, as the sorts of people who regularly go to the polls on Election Day. In turn, voting even once can become habit forming, reinforcing self-identification as “a voter” long after the initial conversation with a canvasser. What is more, voter contacts have strong spillover effects within households, boosting participation by others as much as 60 percent.

These field experiments also shed light on tactics that do not work.  Perhaps most interestingly, messages designed to appeal to ethnic or racial solidarities aren’t more effective than general appeals to “civic duty” or other broad concerns.

For example, among African-American voters experiments conducted in cooperation with community organizations using “Green Jobs” or other non-racial issue-based appeals have successfully increased turnout, while another experiment that stressed racial solidarity did not. Among Asian-Americans, appeals that stress ethnic community empowerment have proven no more effective than general messages telling people how to go about voting. Among Latinos, dozens of randomized experiments have effectively mobilized Latino voters with a variety of appeals, although recent work I have done with Ali Valenzuela in California and Texas suggests that appeals to ethnic solidarity can be more effective for Latinos who are less incorporated into the broader American culture and who have stronger ties to their Latino identity.

As candidates, political parties, and interest groups gear up for the 2014 and 2016 elections, recent scholarship shows how to bring reluctant voters to the polls. Largely regardless of the message, personal contact with reluctant voters — even once, but especially repeatedly — can shape the electorate dramatically.

Melissa Michelson is a political scientist at Menlo College and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.