Getting Out the Vote — What Works Best?

Polling place on Election Day

I’m eating my dessert first, and starting with my conclusion. If you’re an individual who wants to do Get Out the Vote work, but you aren’t sure which method is most effective?

Do whichever one you want.

If you’re a campaign organizer, it’s a lot more complicated. (In short: Read the book I’m reviewing here, it really gets into the nitty-gritty.) But if you’re a volunteer trying to maximize your impact? Do the method you want. Phone calls, texting, writing postcards, door-to-door canvassing — all of them work, none of them is a magic bullet, and if you judge by how many votes you’ll get out for every hour you spend, they’re all more or less comparable. I’ll get to specifics in a sec, but the basic message is: Do what works for you.

So now I’ll geek out in more detail. I’ve just finished a book called Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout, by Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber. It’s a non-partisan, evidence-based analysis of actual randomized experiments on a variety of GOTV methods, in different situations and with different messages. The book is aimed at campaign organizers, and if you’re a campaign organizer you should just freaking read it. There’s an awful lot of mythology and conventional wisdom about getting out the vote, and a lot of it isn’t backed by data. Green and Gerber give complex, nuanced, science-based, often surprising conclusions about which methods work best in different situations*, and which ones don’t work at all. But the gist is always aimed at one basic metric: Votes per dollar. Votes gotten out per campaign dollar spent.

But as a person who volunteers my time for GOTV work, my metric isn’t votes per dollar. It’s votes per hour. How many votes can I get out per hour of my work? And to a great extent, my metric is votes per spoon. How much mental, emotional, and physical energy do I need to spend to get out a single vote?

So here’s my quick and dirty summary of Green and Gerber’s book, looking at one particular question: For each GOTV method, how many votes will you get out per person you contact? These are rough, oversimplified numbers, and they vary somewhat depending on an Assortment of Things. And there’s a ripple effect to all of them — if you get someone to vote in the upcoming election, they’re more likely to vote in the next one as well. But here’s the basic breakdown.

Door-to-door canvassing: 1 vote per 17 contacts
Volunteer phone banking: 1 vote per 36 contacts
Handwritten postcards: 1 vote per 71 contacts
Text banking: 1 vote per 381 contacts

That looks like a slam-dunk for door-to-door canvassing. But think about how long it takes to make a contact door-to-door. It takes time to walk to each door, and to get to your canvassing area in the first place. Not everyone will be home, or will answer the door. Your “contact per hour” is going to vary depending on where you’re canvassing and how dense the population is. And none of this factors in your own energy or ability. Even the most able-bodied, extroverted person probably can’t canvas every available hour of every available day. If you’re physically disabled, have mental illness, or are neuroatypical, you may not be able to do it at all.

Phone calls sure look better than texting. But depending on the system you’re using, text banking can be FAST. Lots of contacts in an hour. And with phone banking, effectiveness varies a lot depending on quality: enthusiastic volunteers vs. paid callers, time spent per call, etc. 1 in 36 is just an average: the range is pretty wide (read the book for details), and a lot of what makes a GOTV call more effective is spending more time on it.

Personally, I’m a big fan of handwritten postcards. I love that I can bank my time: I can do the work early, weeks or even months ahead, instead of waiting until right before the election. I do it when I want: in ten-minute bursts or three-hour marathons, half-watching TV, waiting for my lasagna to bake, at two in the morning if I can’t sleep. I totally adore postcard parties: it’s a great way to be social with my friends while we all Do A Good Thing Together. And best of all, I don’t have to talk to anyone. I don’t even have to reply to texts. But postcarding takes money. You generally pay for your own postcards and stamps. I’m okay with that, but a lot of people aren’t.

Which is exactly my point. The cost-benefit analysis is going to play out differently for everyone. Are you free during phone/text/canvassing hours? Do you have a steady schedule, or a more unpredictable one? Do you have money to spend as well as time? How good are you at talking to strangers? How fast do you walk? And of course, you don’t have to stick with just one method. You could do postcards and postcard parties weeks or months before an election, then switch to texting or canvassing closer to Election Day.

There are a lot of interesting conclusions in Green and Gerber’s book. For me, the big one is this: The most effective way to get out the vote, both short-term and long-term, is to create a culture where voting is normalized and expected. There are plenty of ways to do that (some of which the book gets into and some of which it doesn’t); that’s a big conversation I’ll save for another time. Another consistent theme is that personal messages are far more effective: you can make a big difference talking with friends and family, or posting on social media that you voted, but bulk emails and paid Facebook ads are basically pointless. We also need to have reasonable expectations: getting out the vote can make a real difference in close elections, but it’s a nudge, not an earthquake.

And very importantly: Getting out the vote has a long-term effect. When you get someone to vote in the upcoming election, they’re more likely to vote in the one after that. If you’re feeling discouraged about that “1 in 36” or “1 in 71” number, keep that in mind. That one vote can resonate down into the future.

So here’s my takeaway. Getting out the vote is like any form of activism or volunteering. Of course we have to look at hard evidence about what’s actually effective. That’s even more important if you’re an organizer. But as an individual? All other things being more or less equal, the best method is the one you’ll stick with, because you enjoy it.

* Different situations include: Presidential elections vs. midterms; national vs. state vs. local elections; messages from neighbors vs. celebrities vs. election officials; campaigns for a candidate vs. an issue vs. just getting out the vote generally. It’s complicated. Just read the book.

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Getting Out the Vote — What Works Best?
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